Travel, that great writing inspiration. I should just find a way to make a living as a travel writer (well me and a few thousand other people). But I’d have to live up to the standards of one of my literary hero’s Paul Theroux. I must have read The Pillars of Hercules at least four times and have made my way through his entire oeuvre twice. Those literary dreams may not come true, but a recent trip driving the Baja Sur Loop in Baja California, Mexico, was literally a dream come true.
We had originally been planning a return trip to Maui for our winter getaway, but the plummeting Canadian loonie was fast putting a US destination out of reach. $0.80 cents on the $1 makes for some nasty credit card bills when you get home. Hunting around for another warm, beachy locale, Mexico seemed like a good alternative. Not being especially enamoured of the all-inclusive vacation we started looking at Pacific destinations like Sayulita (surfing!) and Bucerios, only to find they were completely sold out. What’s up with that? Turns out Hurricane Odile did some serious damage to the Los Cabos area in October, 2014 and lots of people re-routed to the Pacific Coast. Smarty LK figured that might mean some good deals and an uncrowded trip to Baja – and he was so right! The area is well under way to repairing the hurricane damage, although the hotels and some of the beaches along the Tourist Corridor between San Jose and Cabo were still showing lots of damage.
Baja California’s Mexican Federal Highway 1, the Carretera Transpeninsular (Transpeninsular Highway), spans the entire length of Mexico’s left leg, four lanes of smooth, uncrowded asphalt running through the desert with little dirt roads winding out to the water — the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Sea of Cortes to the east. Miles of deserted, white sand beaches, whale-watching, crystal-clear snorkeling, cold beer and fresh fish from the pangas.
Base of operations for our first week was Casa Terry, a sweet little casita located perfectly between Medano Beach and the marina in Cabo San Lucas. The outstanding feature – a rooftop deck complete with fairy lights and full outdoor kitchen for leisurely breakfasts and dinner on the grill with great wine. Oh yes, if you haven’t been to Mexico in a while, there is a now a plentiful and excellent selection of primo South American wines available pretty much everywhere. Beer and tequila is good, a good wine with dinner is better!
Unless you want to spend the day on crowded beaches, being harassed by vendors, or in high pressure bars paying too much for bad margaritas, take Cabo for what it is – a good base – and get out to the surrounding beaches like Playa Santa Maria or Chileno Bay. Finding them is a bit daunting at first – road signs are limited and a bunch of them were blown away in the Hurricane, so check out the local Gringo Gazette and trust the directions that go pretty much “get on Highway 1, drive to km65 and take the dirt track to the beach”. It usually works out just fine, although there is not usually any additional signage — no “Playa Excellante this way”,” no “Turn Right Here Lest You Risk Hitting a Cactus Patch” and no “This Is Actually Someone’s Very Long Driveway, So Following It Is Fruitless” – just have a few cold Dos Equis handy for emergencies and hey, there are No Bad Days in Baja!!
Day trips to the quaint, historic San Jose del Cabo and Todos Santos are a great alternative to the tourist boats. Taqueria Rossy in SJ is a must-do, although the looks on our faces the first time we were presented with “naked” tacos – just fish or shrimp on a taco – must have been priceless. With my marginal Espanol and some keen observation we figured out that you had to go to the “salad bar” for all the fixings.
Todos Santos had been on my must-do list for a long time, the Hotel California has been a long running urban myth as the inspiration for the “Hotel California” of Eagles fame. LK had been once before and forewarned me it was a tourist trap and, as usual, he was right. Whether it is the real Hotel California is up for debate, but hey, it was a Hotel California and it was in a desert. The best part was driving out of Todos Santos heading for La Paz with the Eagles playing while we drove “down a dark desert highway, cool wind in our hair”. Ok, that was pretty awesome, with or without the smell of colitas!
Leaving Cabo we headed north to La Paz and then out to the East Cape and Sea of Cortez. La Ventana and Sargento are two side by side fishing villages that also happen to be one of the top kite sailing destinations in the world. Our favourite beach was Playa Agua Caliente – so named for the natural hot spring bubbling up through the sand right at the edge of the water. Dig down a couple of feet and you have a natural hot tub, cooled by the incoming waves. Absolutely magic.
Of course it’s literally at the end of the road – you get on dirt and keep driving until it ends and that’s how you know you are there. Rental cars have a short and nasty life in Baja!
No big hotels (or anything else) here. Just miles of beach, incredible wind conditions in the afternoon and peace. If you have only experienced the Mexico of tourist resorts, you owe it to yourself to see the other side, without hawkers and time share touts shoving trinkets in your face, just regular people going about their lives. We were treated with kindness, humour and whole lot of patience given our marginal Spanish. Captain Kirk’s in Ventana was my favourite place – our little casita was the perfect place to spend a birthday.
With our rented Jetta and local reports that the spectacular, but very rough dirt road along the ocean was in bad shape from Odile, we elected a day trip to Cabo Pulma, a spectacular reef and diving/snorkeling site, then wound our way through the mountains of the East Cape to Los Barriles, another small town on the Sea of Cortez. If you have been wondering about personal safety and health, we never once felt unsafe driving in Baja and had only one 24 hour visit from Uncle Monte(zuma) – while in Los Barriles. The one safety tip to pay attention to – driving after dark is treacherous – not because of bandidos, but cows and burros! We saw more than one poor creature by the side of the road and in Mexico, if you kill someone’s livestock, you buy it, not to mention the nightmare of dealing with non-existent insurance to repair the vehicle. Fortunately we had a sweet spot to rest and recover at the Hotel Los Barriles.
And a local recommended the brand new El Gekko Beach Club for Happy Hour – it was very happy!
We circled back to San Jose del Cabo and spent the last two days in a small local hotel in Cabo San Lucas. Perched up on the hill, away from the Tourista Zone but still a very easy 10 minute walk into downtown, the Cabo Vista was a great place to finish our trip.
What we discovered is that it’s safe, easy and way more fun to stay in small hotels, where you meet lots of locals, fellow travelers and ex-pats, then being secured behind fences at an all-inclusive. Driving in Cabo has some challenges, but then so does Chicago or LA. The main roads are good, gas stations and Oxxos (the Baja equivalent of 7-Eleven) plentiful and people are friendly, welcoming and helpful. The only thing better would be to take a month (or two) and drive the West Coast from Vancouver to Los Cabos, camping in the Westie bus. Once we were out of Cabo and into the small towns it felt like we found a secret club we had only heard about by rumour before. Baja California was everything and more, we only need more time Next year.
Here’s The Sweetest Thing from JJ Grey and Mofro, because it really was “the sweetest thing being down by the sea, staring at the sunset” and there really are no bad days in Baja.