Sunday, March 1, 2015

Getting lost in Baja Sur

If your idea of paradise excludes resort bracelets, cruise ships, run-ins with "the bros" at a crowded hotel pool, and the term "all-inclusive", then I suggest paying a visit to Baja California Sur - the southern state of that long, narrow peninsula in western Mexico dividing the Pacific Ocean from the Sea of Cortez. Just outside the very famous, and very touristy Los Cabos (which also happen to be here) lies a vast and rugged wilderness of desert, mountains, and sea, virtually untouched by human presence.

From San Jose del Cabo, head east on Camino Cabo Este, a highway that runs along the southern tip of the peninsula. Now, bear with me when I say "highway", because once you've cleared San Jose, smooth, paved road morphs into pock-marked swiss cheese that would make the most rugged 4x4 weep into its wheelwells. 5 minutes later, all semblance of "road" as we know it vanishes, and you're out in no man's land, baby.

the "highway"
First, for the love of god, rent a Jeep! And make sure it's a 4x4, you're going to need every bit of grip out here. Second, regardless of what you drive, you will receive a long, thorough, and punishing jostling. But, your reward will be a chance to explore this place, and it is a worthwhile proposition in the end; I wouldn't have it any other way.

The landscape is spectacular, and the setting a little Mad Max-ish. The only development to be encountered here is the occasional fishing boat, trailer or winnebago with a string of laundry flapping in the wind, a guy with a beer slouched in a camping chair, and a dog sniffing around in the sand.

There are also the mansions... beautiful coastal properties with breezy, thatch-roofed verandas and luscious tropical gardens... all empty, cracked down the middle and crumbling into the sand. This isn't due to any economic downturn, but a single unlucky toss of a cosmic coin. Hurricane Odile passed over the Baja California only 5 months before our visit and the results are still evident everywhere. While the Cabos, which rake in the majority of tourist dollars scrambled to rebuild, and seem to have snapped right back into shape for (the most part), everything outside of them stands in stark contrast; hauntingly, beautifully dissolving back into nature like slow motion sacrifice.

To be honest, there is a certain poetry to it; the destroyed structures nestled into the wild landscape, especially during bright, warm, sunny days when a breeze gently ruffled the curtains inside a gutted winnebago, or a light rain drizzled on giant cement blocks that were ripped off their foundation and hurled onto the beach by a raging force of nature. There was a lot of damage, to be sure, and a lot of resulting grief, but I can't help but to see a certain harmony in the frames.

We chose to make our home base in a small, off-grid boutique hotel near Cabo Pulmo, a national marine wildlife preserve. The hotel, VidaSoul, an ultra-modern boutique hotel with a bohemian soul, is one those occasional structures jutting out against the desolate landscape, its sleek lines and sharp angles amusingly at odds with its surroundings.

Me on the balcony of our room. On the right, the hotel dog, Garou, accompanied us on a beach walk and tried really hard to befriend a dead puffer fish.
Cabo Pulmo teems with wildlife, both marine and land dwelling. If happiness could be measured by the diversity of critters encountered on a trip, this would be the most joyous adventure ever! Whales leaped out of the water all around us, colorful tropical fish dashed among the corals as we snorkeled in the crystal clear turquoise waters. Toss in a plethora of birds, seals, even a diamondback rattlesnake! - and you'll start to get the idea. 

Whales were perhaps the most most magnificent of our many encounters. Their sheer numbers made them an everyday occurrence. Not only did we see herds of them from the boats, but just driving along the coast, we spotted their telltale plumes out in the water. Heck, having our morning coffee at the hotel, we could see them frolicking in the distance! It was magical.

So we spent quite a bit of time on the water, of course, snorkeling, swimming, and making fresh tracks in the sand. All along the coast there are plentiful beaches: huge, virginal, and completely empty. Though we did venture into the Cabos one day for some organized activities, the beaches there were crammed to the gills with tourists, street vendors, cafes blasting loud music... a hard sell after our uncharted paradise with its miles of unspoiled beach front for our exclusive use.

the famous Arc - the area's best known landmark, at Cabo san Lucas.
Dutifully posing for a photo by our boat cap'n.
Lovers' Beach, Cabo San Lucas
Lovers' Beach is accessible only by boat (which is undeniably part of the allure). It is a double beach, with one side facing the Pacific, and the other - the Sea of Cortez.

Cabo San Lucas

a very rugged coastline
Back in the wilderness. No one around for miles and miles. Skinny dip if you want to!

With warm, clear water, and abundant sealife, staying by the ocean can be  tempting. And if you've secured a bottle of hooch (plan ahead, 'cause you sure ain't buying it around here), it's all but a done deal to just beach hop in your jeep, and suckle all day. But a trek inland shouldn't be missed, either. Heading up into the mountains, you will be treated to some very unusual flora, and sweeping, achingly beautiful panoramas in every direction. We tried to do it on bikes, a choice which was very unpopular with Flo. Understandably, as it was very tricky terrain over rather uncomfortable angles. Hiking would have been a better choice, which is what we opted for on our second attempt.

Practical tip: a namesake to the national park, the little village of Cabo Pulmo is the sole real "settlement" in this entire area. It's a good two hours from the Cabos by our favorite "highway", and consists of a few dive shops, a couple of rugged eco lodges, and the only place within a 100 mile radius to get a proper margarita. You can also rent bikes, snorkel gear, paddle boards, kayaks and ATVs here. The whole place is run by Americans and Europeans, the kind of people that go to great lengths to escape civilization and live off-grid.

Also, not that we're birders or anything, but we were very excited by some of the photo ops in the Estuary and bird sanctuary at San Jose del Cabo. Unfortunately, this part of San Jose was really ravaged by the hurricane and remains in a sorry state as far as its park facilities. It looked like it used to be a really gorgeous park. But nature is coming back to normal here, the river is flowing, meeting the sea, and the birds are plentiful, loud, and colorful here.

As always, we left feeling like we had barely started. That's the problem with having jobs - they really tend to get in the way of traveling! We didn't get to everything I had on my to-do list, which means someday I'll have to find my way back here. Clearly, when it comes Mexico, I can never get enough.

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