| Travel Guide, Winter 1995-1996|
Mexico: Baja California
If your idea of good H2O involves head-high surf and barracuda-infested reefs, you'll find no better place to hang your hammock
By Andrew Rice
The tip of the Baja Peninsula is not quite California and not quite Mexico, but it shares the less savory characteristics of both: droves of hard-partying Southern Californians, Mexican-style concrete condo forests. Here's how to avoid the crowds in Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, and San José del Cabo, and get into Baja's legendary surf, sand, and sierra.
With beachfront cafes, family-run hotels, lush fruit orchards, and a growing community of artists, the Pacific village of Todos Santos, an hour north of Cabo San Lucas on Highway 19, is a real find for surfers in search of warm, uncrowded winter waves. A few miles south of town, Playa San Pedrito, one and a half miles from Highway 19 (turn off the highway between kilometers 56 and 57) has one of the best cobblestone rivermouth reefs in Baja. On a good north swell, hollow peaks break up and down this crescent beach. Catch a few waves, then sample fresh fish from the pangueros (local fishermen who beach-launch their colorful pangas). About five miles south is the turnoff to Playa Cerritos, another fine north-swell spot with an uncrowded right-point break. Pitch your tent here in a clean, cactus-landscaped campground ($5 per night). In Todos Santos, stay at the Todos Santos Inn (doubles, $40, breakfast included; 114-4-9133), an 1850s house with three guest rooms and ocean views.
Sierra de la Victoria
Baja's southern cape is crowned by the Sierra de la Victoria, a group of peaks ranging up to 7,090 feet and crisscrossed by dirt roads leading to small ranches and pueblos. For a good 25-mile biking loop, take the road from San José del Cabo to El Salteador and then back to Punta Palmilla, where you'll find pools deep enough for swimming in many of the creeks along the way.
A more ambitious route leads 15 miles north into the mountains from Cabo San Lucas to the tiny pueblo of Candelaria, where curanderos (healers) still practice their "white" magic. Breeze back to Cabo on the paved road with the prevailing wind at your back. You can rent mountain bikes at the Brisa del Mar trailer park in San José del Cabo for $15 per day.
San Dionisio Canyon
The last thing you'd expect to find in Baja are aspens, but they're right here, along with pines, palms, cacti, and yuccas in one of the weirdest botanical mixes anywhere. Midway between La Paz and San José del Cabo on the Transpeninsular Highway (Highway 1), a number of trails lead into San Dionisio Canyon, five miles west of the town of Santiago. Backpacking here reveals a side of Baja few ever experience: steep granite gorges, deep creeks, pine forests, and La Laguna--a mile-square marshy meadow at more than 6,000 feet that was once a lake. Although you're only four miles north of the tropic of Cancer, it can be cold, foggy, and rainy in the morning, then turn scorching hot and dry.
From Santiago, take the dirt road north off the plaza. When the road forks into three, take the middle tine, which leads to the private Rancho Dionisio. (Roads come and go in Baja with every new rain, so take any directions with a grain of salt.) From the trailhead at the ranch it's 15 steep miles to La Laguna, and since trails aren't maintained here you'll probably have to forge your own route up the canyon. A copy of The Baja Adventure Book, by Walt Peterson (Wilderness Press), the best guide to hiking the Sierra de la Victoria, comes in handy.
Isla Espíritu Santo
Fifteen miles off la paz in the Sea of Cortés sits the desert island of Espíritu Santo, uninhabited except for the wild goats, ringtail cats, and endemic black jackrabbits that prowl its 25 square miles. The island's west coast is scalloped with turquoise coves lined with white-sand beaches that make for inviting places to bed down for the night. Get your fresh (but nonpotable) water from the well at Playa Caleta el Candelero (bring your own rope and bucket). There's great snorkeling all around the island, especially the small coral reef just off Bahía San Gabriel in the southwest corner, and at Los Islotes, a sea lion rookery on the island's north end. Winter water temperatures dip into the sixties and seventies, so pack a lightweight wetsuit.
Baja Expeditions in San Diego leads five- and eight-day trips to Espíritu Santo from October to May (five days, $695; eight days, $1,095, including meals, kayak and camping gear, guides, and crew; call 800-843-6967).
From November to March, windsurfing speed freaks take over the small resort community of Los Barriles, 50 miles north of Cabo San Lucas, for the nearly constant 15- to 25-mile-per-hour winds that blow sideshore here for days at a time. This is no place for beginners; if you can't water-start, the chop and high wind make uphauling virtually impossible on all but the lightest days. But for intermediate and advanced sailors, two resorts on the sand are fully stocked with the latest boards and will keep sails rigged and ready.
Try the Vela Windsurf Resort (seven-night package, about $700 per person; 800-223-5443), based in the Hotel Playa del Sol, or Mr. Bill's Beachfront Villa (seven-night package, $450-$575 per person; 800-533-8452). Both places allow unlimited use of their boardsailing equipment and also provide mountain bikes, snorkeling gear, and sea kayaks at no extra charge.