Saturday, March 5, 2011

Trip report: Eight days in Mexico's Southern Baja California

In the 11 years since I last spent time in Mexico's southern Baja peninsula a real estate boom has come and gone and restaurant and hotel prices have become less of a bargain. But the margaritas remain the best in the universe! Ken and I have returned from an eight-day road trip exploring the Baja, starting in Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, then heading north with two nights at Cabo Pulmo for snorkeling, up to La Paz and over to Puerto San Carlos on Bahia Magdalena to chase whales. The loop continued back south to Todos Santos with a final night in San Jose de Cabo back at the Tropicana Inn with its luscious courtyard pool and street-front outdoor restaurant.
Evidence of the now faded real estate boom was everywhere with half-finished high-rise condo projects silhouetting urban skylines in Cabo San Lucas and La Paz and miles and miles of intimidating four-strand barbed wire fence with "private property" signs walling visitors off from beach access in the Cabo Pulmo area. The good news is that the Pulmo of only three in North America... is protected and the marine life to be found meandering in the coral offers snorkeling at its best. Temperatures during the day were about 80 F. Nights cooled to the high 50s. Also good news (or not) ...almost everywhere we stopped had Wi-Fi Internet service.
For those interested in "getting out there," seeing some country, meeting the people and finding adventure, a self-guided car trip in the Baja Sur is hard to beat. The food is uniformly excellent. The Arcos in Puerto San Carlos on Magdalena Bay prepared grilled shrimp wrapped in bacon. The chile rellanoes at Los Barriles were sensational for their presentation and subtle sauce. Other foodie highlights: A cactus-pineapple breakfast drink at the Concha Beach Hotel in La Paz and sushi on our last night dinner out at The Palmilla...Cabo's most exclusive beach front hotel. Yes, it was expensive.
Plenty of experiences
But it's the out-there landscape that makes the place interesting. The Baja coast line where the cactus-strewn desert contrasts with that turquoise blue water of the Sea of Cortez is nothing less than spectacular.
Snorkeling at Cabo Pulmo was a highlight with clear water, a good guide and plenty of underwater creatures to marvel at.  Our best hotel for the money was the Tropicana Inn in San Jose de Cabo. It's a great authentic alternative to the mega hotels where you wear wrist bands and might as well be in Florida or any where else in the world. Room rates in early March were about $120 a night which included breakfast. The Tropicana's well-maintained and charmingly landscaped courtyard pool provides a decadent respite from a hard day of exploring. The Tropicana also gives you access to the surrounding town and shops.
Cabo Pulmo north on the Sea of Cortez was a bargain with individual cabanas at $80 a night. Getting there requires an hour's drive north on Mexico Highway 1, then east and back down the coast on a dirt road. Diving and snorkeling are the attraction and worth the effort.
La Paz with 200,000 residents is a teaming Mexican city offering a classic waterfront promenade. We found La Boheme, a restaurant just two blocks from the waterfront with a charming menu, great service and a bricked, open air, interior court yard. We would return to Magdalena Bay or Bahia de Magdalena for the whale-watching but also because at least one outfit offers eco-camping on remote parts of the bay, only available by panga. Snorkeling, hiking and fishing as well as whale-spotting can easily fill a day. The town of San Carlos is a bit rustic with limited accommodations but the hospitality of the people there is exceptional, even for Mexico. Hotel Brennan on the main road into town was the most obvious place to stay.
Todos Santos on the Pacific side of the peninsula was obviously a top destination for those wanting to get out of Cabo San Lucas, but too touristy for our tastes. We did enjoy our night at The Hotelito, a boutique hotel featuring  a collection of exquisitely decorated cabanas northwest of downtown.
Bring ear plugs when you go to Mexico. Cock fighting is a national sport. Roosters looking for a fight are to be found in cages under every shade tree and near every window. They start crowing at daybreak, or just a bit before daybreak.
Odds and ends
We picked up our rental car at the airport through Antonio Miranda at Alamo...a great guy. There were no surprises. We were looking for a sunny escape from Portland's gray rainy cold. We wanted the freedom to explore the country, meet the people and snorkel. Next time we will build in a day of fishing, which is better later in the spring and a day of sea kayaking. Many of our friends cautioned us about going to Mexico because of their concerns related to drug gang activity. We felt completely safe although there was plenty of gang graffiti around Cabo and La Paz.
To plan our trip we used Moon's handbooks "Baja: Tijuana to San Lucas" and "Cabo Handbook: La Paz to Cabo San Lucas. We flew Alaska Airlines from Portland to Cabo with a stop in L.A. going south and a stop in San Francisco on the return. While in the Baja, we met plenty of fellow adventurers from the U.S. and Canada who, like us, were in search of sun, "outdoor" experiences and a good margarita. We scored on all counts.
For more:
Moon's Travel Guides.
Lonely Planet Baja Travel Guide
National Geographic, Baja travel blog fishing reports

No comments:

Post a Comment