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Baja California, Mexico

 

A black mass appears from behind a rock. Unmistakably, it’s an alpha male. While the other sealions zipping around us in the ocean look like swimming dogs, this giant is more like an underwater bear. Sometimes defensive of their territory, we give him plenty of space.

“They’re wild animals.” instructor Manuel Rodriguez tells me, back on the boat. “But they know how to interact with humans. They’re unbelievable swimmers. We tend to swim with the infants, who are curious, rather than the alpha males.”

Swimming with sea lions in the Sea of Cortez is one of many memorable experiences on a new self-drive road trip through the southern half of the Baja California peninsula. Diver/explorer Jacques Cousteau famously described the local waters as the ‘Aquarium of the World’, with whales seen on both sides of the peninsular in the peak season (Dec-March).

But there’s plenty more to Baja than whales. We set out on our road trip outside of the whale season, when the resorts and towns across the peninsula are emptier of tourists, and find remarkable coastal landscapes and deserted beaches, volcanoes and cactus-covered, desert wildernesses, as well as little-known rural towns, rare pronghorn deer and ancient rock art.

ART, NOBU & LA PAZ

 

Renting a car from Los Cabos airport, we make our way along the coast, calling in at the resort city of San José Set on the beachfront, four miles away from downtown Los Cabos, Nobu’s a sleek, modern, whitewashed resort with four swimming pools and little biznaga cactus and agave plants throughout the grounds. Our suite’s decorated cream and white, with touches of red in a  del Cabo to check out colourful galleries in the downtown art district, and crossing through the hotels, bars and restaurants of Cabo San Lucas to stay for a few days at the newly opened Nobu Los Cabos hotel. The 200-room beachfront hotel is the first Nobu in Latin America from chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa and his

business partner Robert de Niro and is part of an ambitious expansion plan. From nine hotels currently, there are plans to have 20 by 2020, including Chicago, Riyadh and War saw rug and paintings, and a bathroom wall with hundreds of inlaid rounded stones. Along a corridor, there’s a clinical white spa area, which we visit one morning for firm, relaxing Swedish massages.

But food’s the star of the show, from aguachile, guacamole and mezcal margaritas at Playa Bar to red snapper with Salsa Verde at the farm-to-table Malibu Farm restaurant. At the seafront Nobu restaurant one evening, waiters deliver warming glasses of sake as we enjoy a memorable banquet of sharing plates from the largely Japanese-Peruvian menu, including cauliflower with jalapeño sauce, thinly sliced salmon in sesame oil and Atlantic cod with miso. If we could eat at Nobu every day, we might not leave. But we restart our road trip, driving north to Todas Santos with the Pacific on our left, mountains and forests of candelabra cactus to our right.

We stay in Todas Santos overnight, visiting the tourist town’s art galleries, the central plaza and the white Our Lady of Pilar Church before taking the long, straight highway to La Paz on the peninsula’s east coast. Having a car means the freedom to explore. We work our way along the coast, checking out remarkably beautiful beaches, including Balandra and Tecolote, before spending the evening walking along La Paz’ seafront Malecón, checking out a series of sculptures: Jacques Cousteau, whales, dolphins, a shining metallic pearl.

Next morning, we take a boat out to the protected Isla Espíritu Santo.

Baja California, Mexico

Rocks along the island’s coast are crowded with nesting cormorants and frigatebirds. Pelican formations glide over copper-coloured ridges. At Los Islitos, we’re kitted out with masks, fins and snorkels, jumping off the boat into the cool water to swim with some of the 600 resident sealions. Many of them are on the slick

Opposite page:
Todas Santos Street;
paddling at El Requeson;
Nobu Los Cabos .

This Page:
Jacques Cousteau statue;
artful avocado dishes at Nobu

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From top:
sea lions at Los Islitos;
Balandra beach

rocks, warming in the sun. A mother and an infant glide by beneath us. Another leaps out of the water, flopping onto its side. Curious infants come over to study us.

“Did you see the big alpha male?” Rodriguez asks, as we travel by boat across the ocean for lunch on Ensenada Grande beach on Isla Espiritu Santo. “They’re being pretty territorial today.”

“In no other place in the world can you swim with sea lions, except in captivity,” he continues. “And there’s so much other marine life round Baja: the whales, turtles, and fish, like snapper, grouper, parrotfish… It’s one of the best areas in the world for biodiversity.”

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

Driving further north into dusty white plains and desert, it feels like we’re left the main tourist hotspots far behind.

We turn off the highway and head through the backcountry towards Misión San Javier, a UNESCO-protected 18th century church in the remote mountains. It’s an adventurous drive on a challenging, uneven, rocky road through avenues of red rock cliffs and cactus. We see a few ambling cows, but no other cars.

Along the way, we stop at Rancho Santo Domingo, where 67-year-old owner Humberto Verdugo Garcia leads us up the rocky hills to see ancient rock paintings at the Cave of the Serpent. “Careful that way, amigo. There might be snakes near the entrance,” Garcia warns me, as we reach the mouth of the cave, where rocks and walls are decorated with a faded red snake, whale, squid and fish. The cave paintings, which Garcia discovered 19 years ago, are thought to have been used up to 10,000 years ago by the region’s nomadic indigenous Cochimíes, he explains. They’ve been studied and are now recognised by UNESCO, one of many rock art sites across Baja.

COASTAL DRAMA

We reach Misión San Javier in the evening, a grand white church surrounded by lemon trees set in a remote mountain village with less than 150 inhabitants, before making our way down switchbacks to the Bay of Loreto as the last of the day’s light burns out. Loreto was the first Spanish settlement in Baja California. We visit the vivid yellow Museum of Jesuit Missions and neighbouring Church of Our Lady of Loreto, and spend time among the pelicans down at the harbour.

Clockwise from top left:
the cave of the serpent; Church of our Lady of Loreto; cacti near San
Ignacio; pelican at Punta Cabos

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The coastal drive next day is one of the most dramatic sections of the trip, with giant mountains striped red, green and white with layers of geological time, and the ocean shining as we work our way up Conception Bay, each bend in the road seemingly bringing a new beach, many of them deserted. We stop to swim at El Requesón, wading through shallow water to a cactuscovered island, then head inland, past the peaks of still-active Volcan Tres Virgenes, to our final base, the tiny non-touristy town of San Ignacio.
Exploring further north next day, we find horned lizards and rare Peninsular Pronghorn deer at the Baja  Pronghorn Reserve inside the vast, remote, protected wilderness of the Vizcaino desert, just across the border in Bala California Norte. It’s as far as we venture. Next morning, we depart early for Loreto to fly out of Baja. We spend our final evening photographing cactus on the hills around San Ignacio, then eat dinner at a little restaurant on the town’s quiet plaza. Locals gather around taco stands, while children practice football and volleyball around the Laurel trees in front of the Jesuit church San Ignacio Kadakaamán Mission. It’s an authentic slice of rural Mexican life, with a feeling of peace and calm: well worth driving 1,000 miles for.

The author travelled in Mexico with Journey Latin America (journeylatinamerica.co.uk) and stayed at Nobu loscabos.nobuhotels.com/

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