When your Gringo visits Mexico for more than a few days, he has a hard time staying in just one place! That’s why when my sister invited us for a week at their timeshare on the beach in San Jose del Cabo, I parlayed that into a Baja Sur Road Trip, with stays in Todos Santos, San Jose del Cabo and La Paz, as well as stops at some fairly remote and amazing spots in between.
Our road trip started out fortuitously at the Fox Rental Car counter in the San Jose del Cabo airport. I was chagrined to find out that they were out of 4WD Jeep Wranglers (which we had reserved), but tickled silly when they offered to upgrade us to a much larger 4WD Jeep Liberty…at no extra cost! With Uncle G in the hatchback, we’d be able to roll both our families around Todos Santos and Cabo and take some good sidetrips where 2WD vehicles fear to leave treads.
PART 1: TODOS SANTOS
We drove at night from the airport to Todos Santos (a government-designated “Pueblo Magico”), about 2 hours west and then north from Cabo. As somewhat of an old “Baja Hand”, your Gringo is very aware of the perils of nighttime driving in Baja. A stray cow, nasty pothole or a speeding drunk will take you out faster here than the legendarily elusive highway bandito. The recently renovated Highway 19 and its four, well-lit lanes provided safe transport for your gringo and his entire family (including our 4 year old Wolfie and his 5 year old cousin, Siena). I was asked by a couple from Seattle on the beach if I was “scared to drive around down here”. With the proper precautions, an able vehicle and awareness of your surroundings, certainly not.
We arrived at Casa Bentley late at around 11PM after navigating Todos Santos’ dirt backstreets to find it (often asking locals on the street…or what I called “Mexican Mapquest”). Beatrice, the hotel manager, led us into the sprawling stone and orchard filled grounds of this unique hotel and to our rooms in the Fountain and Dolphin suites. Owner Bob Bentley, a former professor of Geology at University of Colorado, moved to Todos Santos 25 years ago to “…get away from all the rules and regulations of the US”, and to begin work on Casa Bentley, which is designed in the style of a Portuguese castle. Both Beatrice and Bob are very much a part of the experience (Bob often joins guests for drinks) and their “Boutique Baja Hotel” is comfortable, beautiful and a very unique place to stay.
Our first hang was in the town center (where the tourist buses from Cabo drop off hoards of bracelet-clad day-trippers) with lunch at the Tequila Sunrise Restaurant across from the refurbished Hotel California (NOTE: Contrary to popular belief, this is NOT the hotel the Eagles were singing about, but terrific publicity for the hotel owners). Some interesting shops here with a variety of authentic and not-so-authentic souvenirs to be had.
Given that we were here for 3 nights, we did explore pretty much the rest of the town in a short amount of time. Terrific cobblestoned sidewalks, rutted dirt roads, Spanish colonial architecture and a friendly town vibe really set Todos Santos apart. We rolled past the house Peter Buck from REM recently purchased (a purple adobe off Calle Pilar). We picked up fresh fish for dinner one night at the Pescadero market on the edge of the centro (they also serve fresh fish on an outside patio for lunch and dinner) and grilled them with some Baja jumbo shrimp in the Casa Bentley outdoor kitchen. There are also several smaller shops and galleries worth looking into here. We stumbled across one such place, “Faces of Mexico” that had an impressive collection/museum of masks from the pre-hispanic period to modern day.
When we rolled back two weeks later through Todos Santos on our return trip, we paid a visit to the town’s old cemetery. Littered with trash (some being eaten by a very small puppy), broken glass and other detritus, it was an eerie place even in the middle of the day (which was also the only overcast day we spent in Baja Sur, adding to the ominous feel of the place).
Surfers know of the legendary breaks off the coast near Todos Santos, but as we were rolling with a couple of kindergarten-age kiddos, we were in need of a good swimming beach. The “sneaker waves” and often strong riptides off this part of the Pacific coast have been known to take swimmers out to the open sea. Beatrice from Casa Bentley pointed us in the direction of “Las Palmas”, a beach at the end of a winding dirt road accessed via a farmer’s open gate and a palm oasis. When we rolled in, there were only 4 or 5 other folks enjoying it. Our first nearly-deserted beach day of the trip.
PART 2: LOS CABOS
(San Jose del Cabo & Cabo San Lucas)
If you’ve been following your Gringo up to this point, you know that when it comes to Mexican travel, he’s not much of a “resortist”. However, my sister and brother-in-law’s timeshare, the Coral Baja – with a room overlooking the bottom part of the Sea of Cortez, a swimming pool for the kiddos and full facilities – seemed like a fine place to be and a great base for ventures all around Los Cabos. We had one final lunch in Todos Santos and then loaded up the rental cars for the drive to San Jose del Cabo.
Cabo was about the beaches. We spent a day at Playa Medano in Cabo San Lucas, the main beach of the entire corridor. Since we were there during the off-season, it was bustling for sure, but not overcrowded and obnoxious. For $15 bucks, we rented a couple of beach umbrellas, and one of the umbrella dudes ran into town to buy some Tecates for us. Returning with a bag of beer and a bag of ice, he dumped the ice into the bag with the beer. Baja Cooler.
Our favorite beach was Playa Chileno, on a small bay about midway down the corridor. Uncrowded (except when the one-hour snorkeling tour dropped off a boatload of snorkelers in the early afternoon), Playa Chileno is accessible via a wooden walkway through a palm grove to the beach. The water here is clear and warm and there’s excellent snorkeling and fish-watching at both ends of the bay. The views are dramatic, rocky and colorful. It looks like there may be some development happening on the southern ridge, so the bay may not be so private down the road.
My brother-in-law was craving adventure, so we booked an ATV tour to the Sierra Laguna foothills and the small village of Candelaria. Although there were about 8 fellow riders on the shuttle van (a nice convenience for those without a car), I was pleasantly surprised when Greg and I were separated from the group and given our very own guide (the rest of the folks were taking the Migrino Beach ATV tour, which they seemed to love when we spoke after). Our guide Baltazar was fun, informative, helpful, friendly, very fluent in English and a great guy to spend the day with.
The tour took us through an arroyo and then led up into some fairly steep dirt climbs into the mountains toward Candelaria. Although we saw some folks with young children clinging to their backs on the way back, I would not recommend this tour for the youngsters! Once we arrived in Candelaria, Baltazar gave us a thorough history of the Pericu who used to inhabit this area, as well as the status of the town now. It was nice to get off the beaten Cabo path and see a little history. The ride down and back ended on Migrino Beach. A beautiful place to end a perfect day.
We split off from the pack and Ursula, Wolfie and I spent a morning hiking through the San Jose del Cabo Estuary, a huge area of saltwater marsh that is home to thousands of native plant and animal species. Ranchers had cows grazing amongst the palm trees on one side of the path for a while, which did not escape the ironic eye of your former Midwestern Gringo. This was a beautiful spot, but is possibly stated for development. We saw perhaps 6 other people enjoying the park while we were there so it’s uncertain if our species at least will miss it.
Right up the road from the Estuary is the San Jose del Cabo Centro (town center). A bustling combination of restaurants, jewelry shops, tequila tasting parlors, historic buildings (such as the Government Palace and Mission), tourists, locals and ex-pats living the high life, I found the town to be authentic, friendly and beautiful in spots. A couple of the secondary roads were being dug up for the installation of additional sewage and water lines. Ever persistent, shop keepers placed boards over the open trenches to their doors, urging you to try their wares. I peeked into the Encanto Inn while wandering the Arts district. It’s an historic hacienda that has been turned into a very nice B&B. Would consider staying there next time for an in-town experience.
I enjoyed some fantastic seafood during this leg of the trip. Particularly at Herraderas near the Centro (any restaurant is that much better with a palapa roof) and Tacos Claros, also near the Centro, and THE BEST place for all kinds of seafood tacos (including scallops, shrimp, oysters, pulpo and just about anything else that swims in the sea and tastes good). After three locals had let me know it was their favorite, we needed no further convincing and munched out. Conveniently, there is a clean, well-maintained playground (a rare thing in Mexico, as many playgrounds are rusty and in disrepair) with sand attached to the restaurant, so we enjoyed our Pacificos and Tacos in peace while Wolf and Siena played happily with some of the local kids.
PART 3: HIGHWAY 1 TO LA PAZ
Parting ways with Jen, Greg and Siena who were headed back to San Diego after 9 days, we loaded up the trusty Jeep Liberty with our luggage and pointed north to the Baja Sur state capital of La Paz, where we would spend another week before heading north of the border ourselves. We chose to drive the winding Carretarra Route 1 up the east coast and around the eastern foothills of the Sierra Laguna range. The drive is amazing and naturally beautiful with palm groves, jagged rocky peaks and a multitude of cactii on our left, and the sparkling blue glimmer of the Sea of Cortez to our right. Although Ursula “white knuckled” it the entire time due to the curvas peligrosos and lack of a median or frequent pullouts on this two lane highway, your Gringo kept the speed limit and rode the line the entire 2.5 hours on the road to La Paz.
Just before we reached La Paz, we stopped at the small town of El Triunfo (population 300-ish). Once the largest city in Baja Sur, El Triunfo became a rich center for gold mining of 10,000 in the mid 1800′s and a quaint, working Spanish Colonial town grew up around the industry. There’s a large, very tall brick smelting chimney stack on the back edge of the town that was designed by Gustav Eiffel. I chatted briefly with an American ex-pat on the sidewalk who seemed to be involved in a hacienda-restaurant restoration. He indicated that one of the Walton family (of Wal-Mart fame) had just moved into town, along with two other billionaire developers and that the town was going to be transformed. Once again, we felt as if we were seeing something at the end of it’s lifespan as an authentic piece of Mexican history, though time, as always, will tell the tale south of the border.
PART 4: LA PAZ
When we first rolled into La Paz, there was a bit of a shock, admittedly. We had just spent a week and a half in the very quiet town of Todos Santos and the resort-style laid-back ambience of Los Cabos. La Paz (or “The Peace”) seemed anything but the sort. Families, students and ex-pats bustled down the streets as cars vied for pole position zooming down the malecon. There were car horns, traffic lights, shouts down the street and more of a police and military presence than we’d seen up to this point. The city also has a frustrating lack of street signs in its Centro and is best navigated like a local, looking at but rolling through stop signs and moving with the overall ebb and tide of the local drivers. Ursula called La Paz “…like Tecate, but on the Sea of Cortez” and she hit the nail on the head. But by the end of the trip, we were charmed by La Paz and it’s people, sites, seafood and gorgeous beaches.
Our hotel, The Hotel Marina a twenty-minute walk to the center of the malecon by the Palmira Marina, helped make our transition easier as it is in a very quiet, unpopulated area and provides a good respite from the business of town. Although we had booked a Junior Suite, the hotel manager suggested we upgrade to a Master Suite for only $20US additional per night. Although fairly undecorated, our suite had high ceilings and three separate balconies, all overlooking the marina.
La Paz is two worlds, both relatively untouristed (at least for now): 1) A bustling Mexican city of approximately 300,000 “Paceños” replete with historic center, old Spanish mission and amazing architecture and shops, and 2) A city within a short drive of some AMAZING natural wonders, such as the beaches (we visited Playas Balandra and Tecolote) and nearby islands (Espirtu Santo being the largest).
About the beaches…BEAUTIFUL. The clearest, most Caribbean-like water I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Perfect white sand beaches with lazy bays that seem to go on forever toward the Sea of Cortez. Abundant and friendly sea life awaiting exploration. And, at least during the week, an uncrowded experience where you have your pick of palapa.
Our favorite was Balandra Beach. Balandra is a gorgeous, aqua green, blue bay that is actually a system of bays. The water goes out for 50-100 yards without ever getting deeper than your waist. We were warned to watch for stingrays under the sand here and did the “stingray shuffle”, but only encountered colorful fish and the occasional skittering crab. Wolfie and I hiked over to the next bay and found “Mushroom Rock”, a strange formation that is shaped like a mushroom.
Balandra seems to be slated for some type of development, but nothing seems to be being built…yet. This may be a “remember when…” story at some point in the future, but Balandra is an amazing beauty now.
I took off on my own with Isla Espritu & Baja Tours with Captain Carlos and our Tour Guide Eduardo. These two cats had the biggest smiles on their faces all day long…loving their jobs! Eduardo was very informative and you could tell he enjoyed both educating and listening to the experiences of his guests.
I knew it would be an experience when the panga rolled up to the beach off the malecon to pick me up, with the other passengers already aboard. At this point, I was glad that I HADN’T brought four-year old Wolfie with me!
We rolled out to Las Isolotes to swim with the sea lion colony. An excellent experience. The water is buoyant so even those in mid-level shape can experience this adventure. The pups like to come right up to you and like to nibble on your hand like a puppy. A little disconcerting at first, but I got into it very quickly and enjoyed the interaction on their home turf.
On the way back, we rolled into Bahia Ensenada Grande for lunch. A beautiful spot…deserted white sand beach, high sea cliffs, cacti, crystal clear water…an idyllic setting for Carlos’ ceviche he’d just made that morning with some tigerfish he’d caught the day before.
The trip down the Western shore of Ispiritu Santo Island was interpretive and Eduardo explained the history of the island and the Pericu who used to inhabit it very well in both English and Spanish. It was a great way to wind down a perfect day.
Another reason we’d come to La Paz was for the affordable and VERY fresh seafood. We ate at the popular Bismarkcito on the malecon the first night, but by far, our favorite restaurant for awesome seafood and great times was at Mariscos El Molinito toward the end of the malecon. We feasted on meals of LIVE chocolate clams (they squirm when you squeeze lime on them), freshly-caught tuna, corvina, red snapper, broiled octopus and abalone. About abalone. Delicious. But (lesson learned) always ask the PRICE of an exotic seafood before ordering.
We returned to El Molinito three of the six nights we were in La Paz, it was that good. Our last night in town, we went there for Ursula’s birthday. Our friendly waiter Carlos treated us both to a shot of tequila, delivered down our gullets with a towel under our mouths to catch the excess.
On our last morning, we wrapped up the trip by driving back to the airport from La Paz with stops in Todos Santos for lunch and downtown San Jose del Cabo for snacks and beers before having to return the rental and fly back to Tijuana (which closed as we were en route due to fog…we had to spend the night at the Hermisillo airport and fly back the next morning). For nature, culture, relaxation, interaction with a friendly population and adventure, you can’t go wrong with a Baja Sur road trip. We WILL be back!
Your Gringo in Mexico,