May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside's Annual Travel Guide, 1999/2000

Leave Cabo and Ensenada to the party animals—crowd-free Bahía de los Ángeles is the place to go

The garden that is Baja teems with cardón cactus and elephant trees

MORE PEOPLE FLY THAN DRIVE TO Baja California nowadays, but the real spirit of the place is best experienced on an old-fashioned road trip through Mexico's grand desert peninsula to Bahía de los Ángeles on the Sea of Cortez—the most well-preserved piece of wild Baja that can be reached by paved roads. As you roll south from Tijuana along Mexico 1 (also known as the Transpeninsular Highway), each kilometer marker reveals new wonders. Rocky coast gives way to cardón cactus desert until finally, 586 kilometers (364 miles) later, the miragelike beauty of Bahía de los Ángeles unfurls in front of you. Sandwich three days at the bay between two days of travel each way and it's a perfect weeklong Baja adventure.

Leave San Diego in the morning and you'll be in Ensenada in time to grub down the best fish tacos in the world at the Mercado Negro fish market, adjacent to the town pier. After lunch, as you power south through the afternoon, two options present themselves: One is to take an overnight side trip to Sierra San Pedro Mártir National Park and the national observatory. Forty-seven dirt-road miles east of the turnoff from Mexico 1 at San Telmo (a few miles north of San Quintín), this 155,556-acre park is remarkably unvisited considering that it's home to pine forests, rushing creeks, and Baja's highest peak, 9,843-foot El Picacho del Diablo. Option two is to stay with the main road and overnight at El Pabellón RV Park, nine miles south of Lázaro Cárdenas and San Quintín. For about $5 a night, you can pitch a tent on the white-sand beach, which stretches for miles. Come morning, you can buy right-off-the-boat lobster and sea bass from the local fishermen.

Between San Quintín and Bahía de los Ángeles lie approximately 340 kilometers (210 miles) of some of the most beautiful desert driving in the world. A favorite rest stop is Cataviña, a small community amid thousands of acres of towering granite rock piles, gigantic cardón cacti, and droopy boojum trees. Just north of Cataviña at kilometer 171, explore up the arroyo for pools of water and a palm oasis. Nearby is a painted Cochimi Indian cave that's marked by a white wooden sign posted high on the left side of the arroyo. Roughly 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Cataviña is a hardscrabble rest stop in the town of Punta Prieta, marked by the turnoff for the east fork of Mexico 1, which leads 66 kilometers (41 miles) to Bahía de los Ángeles. Top off the tanks—the gasoline supply in the area is sporadic and expensive.

Along the road into Bahía de los Ángeles you'll pass through a changing array of desert landscapes, from dusty ranchland to imposing granite cliffs to thick forests of elephant trees. The first vista of the bay takes your breath away: Steep mountains plunge into blue-green ocean, while an armada of more than a dozen rocky brown islands hovers on the horizon. Closer examination reveals a dusty little town consisting of a few small hotels and restaurants.

The best camping extends about five miles north and south of Bahía de los Ángeles. Punta la Gringa at the north end offers tremendous views of the water and nearby islands, plus easy kayak access to the northern islands, including Coronado and Ventana. The campground here has very few facilities and is exposed to wind and sun, so come prepared. Or head south to Campo Gecko, with its $10-a-night palapas and solar showers. The owner, formerly the town doctor, is one of the area's best fishing guides. Another alternative is La Única Wilderness Retreat (800-221-9283), reachable only by a 45-minute boat ride south from the bay. From the 12 small casitas you can kayak, fish, hike, windsurf, and dive. A four-day package, including all meals, transportation to and from San Diego, watersports equipment, and guides, runs $795–$1,495 per person.

Independent kayakers should check in at Guillermo's Place on the waterfront, where they can pick up a free copy of the area notes compiled by visiting paddlers. The main cluster of islands can be reached from Punta la Gringa by way of a three-mile open-ocean crossing. The archipelago's claims to fame are its endless white-sand beaches, its crystal coves, and excellent fishing and diving. The ultimate Baja kayaking challenge, the trans-Sea of Cortez crossing, begins here and ends in Bahía Kino on the mainland coast.

Bahía de los Ángeles lacks a commercial dive shop, so you'll need your own boat and lots of tanks. Alternatively, just free-dive: Spearfishing is excellent at the islands, and the springtime water temperature is in the low 80s. The snorkeling is fine from shore at both Punta la Gringa and Campo Gecko, and novice boardsailors can build their confidence here, since the bay is sheltered from large swells. More advanced sailors can head into the Canal de Ballenas east of Punta la Gringa, where the winds are stronger. The quintessential Bahía de los Ángeles experience is to spot a sea turtle; it's not uncommon for snorkelers and kayakers to see the fast-swimming tortugas throughout the bay. Or, make it a sure thing by visiting the sea turtle conservation station at the north end of the bay. —Andrew Rice

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