Thanksgiving in Baja California Sur, Mexico – whale sharks, sea lions, baby Ridley turtles, humpback whales and superlative margaritas!
Baja California is a 1000 mile finger of land south of California which protrudes into the Sea of Cortez to the east and south and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Baja is the world’s third longest peninsula and it is the least populous state in Mexico. At its widest point it spans 143 miles and at its narrowest – close to La Paz – it is only 28 miles wide. With 2500 miles of coastal inlets, bays and over 100 islands (37 of them in the Sea in Cortez), it was more than enough to keep us busy for 10 days 🙂
Baja Sur is a land of dusty towns, one-horse dwellings dotted about the desert, cattle ranches, mountains, hot springs and beach communities. There is the raucous party town of Cabo San Lucas (to be avoided by anyone over the age of 21 or anyone of any age interested in maintaining the health of their liver), wind-surfer towns such as Los Barriles and La Ventana, arty Todos Santos and sophisticated San Jose del Cabo.
Towns on our trip worth a detour or a stay were Los Barriles, El Triunfo, Todos Santos and San Jose del Cabo.
The route from San Jose del Cabo airport heading away from the wealthy, irrigated golf course communities of the southern resorts to La Paz highlighted just how wild and undeveloped this state is. As we drove north on Highway 1 we passed through unremarkable settlements, craggy desert cliffs and arid valleys crisscrossed with dusty, bone-dry arroyos. We traversed a landscape dominated by towering cacti and scrubland punctuated with yellow flowers glowing brighter than the sun. Baja forms part of the Sonoran desert, with the mountain range of the Sierra de la Laguna running like a spine through the Peninsula and reaching heights of 10,000 feet in elevation. Along the eastern cape there are miles of coastal dunes and dirt roads – and world-class diving in Cabo Pulmo National Park.
Baja is a desert land of spiny boojum trees, water-bloated elephant trees, yuccas, agave, and majestic cardón cacti. Buzzards and caracara hawks circle high in the azure skies overhead.
I read that the summer rains came later than usual this year – in September – and as a result the desert had burst into life for our arrival – which explained why it was the greenest desert we have ever seen!
Our first scheduled stop after landing – a late lunch at popular taco shack El Viejo in blustery Los Barriles on the east coast – didn’t go entirely to plan. It closes at 3pm. We arrived at 3.10pm. The tacos on the plates of the diners behind the closed gates looked great… we starved 😉 Not to be deterred by hunger from a brief exploration of the environs, however, we headed towards the beach. Wind surfers and kite surfers were zipping across the ultramarine waters at impressive velocity. It would have been a picturesque stroll along the beach were it not for the fact that underfoot the coarse, dark sand had the consistency of builders rubble. Los Barriles was, with one fell swoop, knocked forever clean off our list of potential future retirement locations 😉
Another hour and a half north was the destination for the first part of our road trip, La Paz. En route is the tiny but attractive town of El Triunfo. Famous in its heyday for gold and silver mining in the late 18th Century. Apparently it is a bustling tourist town – allegedly drawing people the world over to explore the old mine and to enjoy the food at famed El Triunfo Cafe. We were the only living humans in the entire place. Clearly, Baja is a quiet part of the world!
Finally we arrived in La Paz and drove around in circles for an hour frantically seeking our home for the next 4 nights. By sheer good luck and a laser-sharp eye for design, I recognized the exterior of the building from the photos of the balcony furniture of our apartment. A street address would have been more useful as a means of navigation but, according to the owner, it didn’t have one – so navigation by balcony furniture had to suffice 😉
We rushed down to the Malecón (the Boardwalk) ten paces from our front door and fell into one of La Paz’ most renowned restaurants – Bismarckcito. Not entirely remarkable, it turned out, but we had to get our energy levels up for our boat trip early the following morning. No rest for the wicked – quite literally we would be straight in at the deep end bright and early on Thanksgiving morning!
Gazing into the eyes of whale sharks on Thanksgiving Day is so much more fulfilling than ganetting 5 courses for lunch and falling into a food-induced coma for the afternoon 😉 It was a true bucket list experience for us both!
It is hard to get reservations with Anna’s eco-friendly “VIP La Paz” whale shark experience on her tiny boat. Her tours take a maximum number of 6 guests – with only 2 snorkelers in the water at once. Pinning her down for a booking is, however, most definitely worth the effort and the money. Our eagle-eyed Captain Eddie was well ahead of the crowd of the other boats circling behind us in search of these giants of the sea. They are the largest fish in the world and can grow to equal the size of a bus reaching up to 40 feet in length, weighing up to 21.5 tonnes and living up to 70 years. Every winter whale shark juveniles return to the Sea of Cortez to gorge on the abundant food source in these waters.
Their corpulent dimensions are quite impressive given that these beautiful, graceful, polka-dot spotted giants are filter-feeders living only on plankton and tiny fish. They swim with their mouths wide open at the surface of the water filtering breakfast, lunch and dinner through their gills. As long as the hapless tourist doesn’t inadvertently find themselves sucked into their cavernous mouths (never to be seen again) they are absolutely harmless to anything larger than krill or fish eggs.
Docile they may be, but slow they most definitely are not! When Anna said jump from your perch on the side of the hull you were expected to jump without delay – launching unceremoniously over the side of the boat – and fin away at top speed to catch up with the sharks. Three out of the four which we were lucky enough to swim with that day would have given olympic swimming medalist Michael Phelps a run for his money just trying to stay alongside them. We were absolutely exhausted. Thankfully, when our energy reserves had all but dried up, we finally found a lazy one! He (or possibly she) drifted elegantly and slowly, occasionally casting an eye in our direction as we floated alongside 🙂
Small tip for anyone thinking of swimming with them – don’t go for the shortie wet-suit like I did. Plankton might be a varied smorgasbord of delicacies for a whale shark – but for a human plankton also includes tiny stinging jellyfish. Perfect! They loved me 😦
During the boat trip we also met Kristoffer Nyman a very interesting and well-traveled young man from Denmark. Not only does he have a passion for underwater photography, he also came equipped with an impressively enormous underwater camera – which made Geoff’s seem humiliatingly small by comparison 😉 As Kris is also a very generous young man from Denmark he gave us some of his photos. It will be quite obvious to the observer which photos are to be credited to him but for anyone struggling to see the substantial difference in quality and color which comes of both a superior talent and a $13,000 camera – they are images numbered “la-paz-whale-shark-snorkelling-15” to “19”.
If he doesn’t become a well-known underwater photographer in the future then there is little justice in the world.
For anyone suitably inspired to visit Baja to swim with whale sharks, the Sea of Cortez (Jacques Cousteau’s “aquarium of the world”) hosts these gentle giants every year and in winter (roughly November through February) the Bay of La Paz usually teems with juvenile whale sharks fattening up for the season. This year they joined the Endangered Species list 😦
As I knew we would have the time of our lives, I had also pre-booked us on a whole day trip the following day comprising yet more snorkeling with whale sharks, swimming with sea lions and a picnic on one of the secluded beaches of famous Balandra bay. The day before, with Anna, the Sea of Cortez had been as calm as a mountain lake, glassy and almost crystal clear. Ideal conditions to swim with whale sharks.
The following morning, the waters in the bay were churning like the Atlantic in a hurricane. We met the boat down at the marina bright and early – half expecting the trip to be cancelled – but no! Together with a young couple and their 8 year old daughter we set out from the marina into swell of 4 to 5 feet, tossed about like a cork in the ocean. Geoff stood for most of the ride glued to the horizon to avoid joining the poor lady opposite us who was positively green around the gills. The little girl was crying in fear for most of the morning as we thrashed about on the ocean waves searching for a needle in a haystack. The day before one could see the dorsal fins of the whale sharks from a considerable distance. This trip, however, I had no expectations whatsoever that anyone would see anything at all other than the unwelcome return of their breakfast 😉
One false whale-spotting alarm, a treacherous trip by Geoff to the front of the boat to complain about the conditions and finally we saw a giant mouth breach at the surface of the swirling, heaving waters. Over the side, into the swell and… nothing! The visibility was so bad that I couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face never mind a 30′ whale. And then – out of the blue – as I thrashed about trying not to drown – suddenly I found myself staring right down into the human-sized cavity of a whale shark mouth. Some frantic finning in the other direction, desperately fighting the pull from the swell, and a second later he (or she) was gone – disappeared into thin air again… or rather into churning plankton-filled soup. Another turn around, some more thrashing about and there I was again – inches from an eyeball… or dangerously close to being side-swiped by a pectoral fin. Back at the boat we both described similar experiences – whale shark there one second and gone the next!
Despite the challenging conditions, it was just as exhilarating swimming with them when you couldn’t see them from one second to the next. It was infinitely more exciting not knowing which end of the shark you were being propelled towards 😉 Photos were, however, disastrous, for obvious reasons!
And onwards to the island of San Rafaelito to snorkel with the friendly sea lion colony. The waves weren’t quite as rough in that part of the bay which is a relief given that otherwise we might have been dashed upon the rocks. The sea lions were totally non-plussed by the presence of humans in their territory. Somewhat inquisitive but largely disinterested – they would swim towards you, take a quick look, briefly check out the cut of your jib and continue on their watery way.
Baja California Sur has more to offer, of course, than swimming, snorkeling or diving with its underwater wildlife (although nothing really beat those experiences).
The food in La Paz was extremely impressive. La Paz is probably the quietest city we have ever visited in Latin America – surprising given that it is also the state capital of Baja. Luckily, its food scene is thriving – stand-outs for future reference are upmarket Nim, the coffee shop Doce Cuarenta and a hugely popular casual fish taco restaurant with the slightly off-putting name of Mc-Fisher. Luckily we weren’t deterred by the name and would have eaten there every day for a month given the opportunity. The diablo fish taco and the mackerel taco will go down in the annals of history for us. And at $1.25 per taco it was also the most generously proportioned and best value taco on the planet 🙂
Balandra Bay, 30 minutes east of La Paz is renowned as one of Mexico’s finest beaches. It has soft, pale sand – no builders rubble here to bruise the delicate soles of our feet, thank goodness! The view over the beach from the short but sweaty hike up shale, slippery gravel and rock was beautiful. Cooling off in the tranquil warm waters was even better! We might have kayaked in the bay but Geoff was already dropping unsubtle hints that the sun was long since over the yardarm – which meant that we had to find the closest beach bar as a matter of urgency. Within 5 minutes he was happily ensconced in a bar at El Tecolete beach watching the waves from a bar stool whilst sipping a large margarita 😉
An hour south – out on the Pacific west coast – lies the arty enclave of Todos Santos. Immediately, I wished I had booked more nights there. Geoff was bored within 2 streets of aimless wandering and questioned why we were even spending one night there. Despite the negativity (which I chose to ignore), it is a charming, attractive town filled with high-end art galleries and boutique stores – albeit it is bijou. As a cultural landmark, it was designated one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos (magical towns) in 2006. It is an artists oasis in the desert – popular with hippies, painters, sculptors, surfers and New Age spiritualists. Perfect for me 🙂 I had booked a night in a patio room in a four-poster bed in Todos Santos Inn – a renovated hacienda original built in the 1870’s as a sugar baron’s estate.
What on earth was there to complain about?!
Still, I had a plan up my sleeve to quiet the moaning 😉
Before lunch, I suggested a walk on the beach. I was surreptitiously heading to Tortugueros las Playitas. As we paddled along the shoreline – waves crashing and the sun glistening like diamonds on the water – Geoff had a glimpse of what I had hoped we might find at the beach – something to bring a smile to his face 😉 Up ahead there was a large tented enclosure on the sand. A local man saw us, emerged from the tent and wandered over to us – the only gringos on the beach – in reality the only other people on the beach. He volunteered for the sea turtle protection charity – Grupo Tortuguero de Todos Santos. He explained that 4 baby Ridley turtles had hatched just 20 minutes earlier and if we would like to, we could help him release them into the Pacific.
Bingo! I had known that there was a very reasonable chance that we would be able to release baby turtles on this beach (given good timing, a bit of luck and a following wind) because the busiest hatching season (starting in December) was almost upon us.
A few minutes later we were both carefully clutching (like over-protective parents) half coconut shells with 2 turtle hatchlings in each. They were desperately scrambling over each other in an effort to clamber out of the shell and rush off into the Pacific. Geoff’s were first off the mark racing straight into the waves and paddling furiously to get out of the treacherous surf and into open waters where they stood a much better chance of not becoming lunch within the first 25 minutes of their potentially short lives.
Mine were slightly less focused in their efforts. They floundered… headed off in the wrong direction… and spent most of the next 10 minutes upside down with their tiny legs paddling like crazy in fresh air. Obviously, as their surrogate mommy, I stood by them, turning them upright again and again until the bitter end when they finally made it to the waters edge. I had to be absolutely sure that they had been given the best opportunity in life to survive the next 5 or 6 minutes at least 😉
Yet another wonderful Baja wildlife experience!
With a renewed spring in his step, Geoff cheered up considerably. Apparently, all it takes to reconsider the appeal of the sleepy, dusty enclave of Todos Santos is a couple of baby turtles, a spectacular lunchtime view over the Pacific, delicious food at El Mirador, a few margaritas and the occasional sighting of humpback whales breaching in the blue waters offshore. Men are so fickle 😉
Off again – with a brief stop at Baja Beans in El Pescadero for a memorable coffee break (the homemade carrot cake was superlative – the standard by which I judge most coffee shops is, of course, the quality of their baked goods ;-))
Another hour south and we reached the tourist nightmare which is Cabo San Lucas. Probably acceptable if you’re 20 and choose to spend your vacation frequenting unappealing tourist bars and imbibing cheap alcohol until you pass out at 5am in the gutter. Even from a safe distance we didn’t feel the need to return save on 2 unavoidable occasions.
The first, a boat trip to the famed El Arco, Love Beach and Divorce Beach at Land’s End. We made it to the marina early to avoid the crowds, located the first glass-bottom boat we could and found ourselves alone with our captain puttering around the coastline. The morning sun was warming the golden rocks and the water was deep and clear. It is a spectacular coastline (even at high tide) and only 10 minutes from the marina of Cabo San Lucas which meant that we were back on the road and out of the city by 10.30am… plenty of time to recline in the shade under a palm-thatched palapa for the rest of the day on what would become our favorite beach along the “tourist corridor” (which runs between Cabo San Lucas and the infinitely lovelier San Jose del Cabo) – Playa Santa Maria.
Our second return trip to the outskirts of Cabo San Lucas was to enjoy the ministrations of masseur Alberto (in my case). I have no idea who was tending to Geoff’s aching muscles but I can highly recommend Alberto’s talents at Eden’s Spa.
Highlights of our sojourn on the southern “tourist corridor” coastline:
San Jose del Cabo (given a lottery winning I would retire to a beach apartment here in a flash!) – arty, immaculate, a well-preserved historic district, colorful, trendy, filled with cafes, coffee shops and excellent restaurants – and all against the sparkling backdrop of the spectacular Sea of Cortez.
Horse-shoe shaped, picture-perfect Playa Santa Maria – still not the soft, white sand we are used to at home but the warm, crystal clear ultramarine and aquamarine waters teeming with marine life were absolutely beautiful. Playa El Chileno also passed muster.
The coffee at trendy Coffee LAB in San Jose.
Los Tamarindos. Somewhere in the foothills outside of San Jose – via a convoluted route of unlit, dusty, dirt tracks – there is a romantic organic farm-to-table restaurant where you can also take cookery classes. We were far more interested in the dinner creations of the Chef and his talented bar staff’s mango margaritas than anything we might have learnt to cook ourselves.
But the highlight of this final leg of our jaunt around the southern tip of Baja California Sur was undoubtedly Flora Farms. Yet another organic farm-to-table restaurant (a literal oasis in the desert) with food so good that we kept going back despite the 40 minute drag across town up into the dusty foothills. And perhaps equally as important, it also served the very best jalapeño and hibiscus flower margaritas ever created. Geoff also took one for the team by testing out the carrot margarita. He proclaimed that it was spectacularly good… which is more than could be said for his driving back down the bouncy, pitted, dusty tracks to Playa Santa Maria before he was allowed to fall asleep in the breeze under a palapa on the sand 😉
We will go back to San Jose del Cabo – not just for the the margaritas and incredible food – but also for the world-class diving at Cabo Pulmo and the thermal springs of El Chorro and Santa Rita in the foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna.
But who am I kidding… we’ll return especially for Flora’s margaritas 😉 🙂