Baja beyond Los Cabos, where nature and adventure reign
Vancouver Sun, December 7, 2019
The air is heavy with a marine aroma, and strange barking noises ride the breeze. As we near the rocky outcrops that make up Los Islotes, an islet in the Gulf of California, a colony of California sea lions comes into view.
Pups and juveniles cavort in the water, occasionally jumping out from the sea’s inky depths. Mature males bask on red rocks striped white with guano, their rolls of blubber glistening in the morning sun.
As we near the islet everyone on the boat tugs on wetsuits, and dons a mask, snorkel and flippers before jumping into the cold water. Almost immediately, a patch of brown fur streaks by: a sea lion swirls around us. A large juvenile grabs my daughter’s mask with its mouth.
“I think he likes you!” guide Peter Krogh says with a laugh, when we surface.
Though it’s just over an hour’s boat ride from La Paz, the sea lion colony is remote enough to remain off the radar for most travellers who journey to the tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. We are here with Todos Santos Eco Adventures (TOSEA) on a six-day Baja Family Adventure. After landing in San Jose del Cabo, we headed north with an itinerary that included hiking, paddling and surfing, far from the all-inclusive resorts that have put Los Cabos on the tourist map.
The resort strip between San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas offers a holiday that centers around the hotel’s buffet, bars and pool. But venture to Todos Santos, and even farther, to La Paz, and you’ll find desert landscapes next to the sea, where nature and adventure—rather than nightlife and amenities—reign.
“People go to Cabo San Lucas and then they search for other things to do,” says Caesar Caballero, a TOSEA guide who splits his time between Todos Santos, La Paz and Isla Espiritu Santo, an uninhabited island in the Gulf of California. “We have everything—the sea, the mountains, the oases. So tourism is growing.”
We start the trip at Camp Cecil, a tented camp fronting El Gallo Bay on Isla Espiritu Santo, one of 244 islands that together form a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. The island is aflutter with birds, from red-throated frigate birds to blue-footed boobies, and the surrounding jade waters teem with marine life including manta rays and whale sharks. Mexico is one of 12 countries in the world that’s considered mega-diverse, and 25 per cent of the island’s plant and animal life is considered endemic.
By day guides lead us on excursions to sea kayak past mangroves and spot great blue herons wading in the shallows. They take us on hikes into canyons of red volcanic rock where cardon cacti adorn the dry arroyos like misplaced candelabras. And they point to the best snorkelling spots to search the shallows for puffer fish, trumpet fish and moray eels.
By evening we gather for happy hour margaritas and watch pelicans glide low over water bright with the reflection of the setting sun. We dine at a communal table laden with warm tortillas and grilled fish. When the moon rises above the hillside behind camp, we nestle into comfortable beds.
The whole glamping experience can best be described as a sea-fari.
“I was here 17 years ago and it’s one place in the world I really wanted to come back to,” says Karen Connaughton. She travelled here from Santa Fe, N.M. with her nine-year-old son, who’s busy looking for shore crabs somewhere down the beach with my kids. “It makes it easy to access remoteness.”
Two days later waves pummel me during a surf lesson at Los Cerritos Beach. With its gradual sandy bottom and consistent surf with lots of whitewash, it’s the best learning beach in the area. My daughter has better luck (or balance) than me, and after a few tips from her instructor she’s soon standing on her board.
Los Cerritos is a 20-minute drive south from Todos Santos, a town of 6,500 that’s our base for the final three days of the trip. Founded in 1723, the oasis town was a Jesuit mission and trading post that grew wealthy from sugar cane production.
Its modern claim to fame is the red stucco Hotel California, which was built in 1948 by Chinese immigrant Antonio “Tabasco” Wong. The building actually has no connection (other than its coincidental name) to the famous Eagles song, which was first released in 1977.
Regardless, “Hotel California probably put Todos Santos on the map. It was a pretty small town and not well known,” says local Isabel Jauregui, who leads historic tours around town.
Now designated a Pueblo Magico (Magic Town) because of its historical significance, Todos Santos has a reputation as an artists’ haven and dreamers’ escape. There are numerous galleries in town and—with its colourful party flags strung above the streets and date palms shading cobbled courtyards—it’s a picturesque spot to unwind.
The next day we mount up with Todos Caballos, a local stable that offers trail rides around town and into the surrounding desert. Our horses emerge from the cool of the palm oasis onto a strip of sand that separates a tranquil lagoon from the Pacific’s crashing waves. After meandering through the surf, the path winds into the desert and our steeds head up a scrubby hill past bushes of jojoba and palo verde flowering with yellow blossoms.
Owner Kaia Thomson points out bobcat tracks next to the trail, as well as jumping cholla, the thorniest cactus I’ve ever seen. We spot quails running along the parched ground and see finches flitting between sentinels of cardon cacti. Along the way Thomson tells us how the town has changed in the past two decades. The roads are now paved and there’s better veterinary care for her horses, but she worries about the pace of development in Mexico’s fastest growing state.
Before long we crest the hill and ride along a ridge. The tidy town centre of Todos Santos beckons on one side and the ocean entices on the other. That contrast between civilization and wilderness embodies Baja beyond Los Cabos.