The Sporty 40

Nov 18, 2003
Outside Magazine

Ignore your mamma's warnings and grow up to be a cowboy in Mexico's answer to the Grand Canyon.

1. Tacoed in Baja
Todos Santos, Mexico

My nine-foot Bear surfboard picked up speed as I dropped down the face, alone on a perfect Pacific wave at Los Cerritos Beach, in Baja California Sur. The tube held for a second, then it sectioned, crushing me into the water and breaking my leash. I found the Bear, washed up on the beach with a nasty gash. I then did what so many before me had done when overwhelmed by BajaÂ’s wild side: I sought refuge in Todos Santos.

Nestled on the coast along the western slope of the Sierra de la Laguna, Todos Santos has for centuries been an outlet for escapists: Jesuit missionaries fleeing angry locals, the wealthy elite of La Paz seeking release from the blistering heat on the Gulf side. In Todos Santos, a crowd is two people you donÂ’t recognize. Sea turtles lay eggs on the beaches and a fishermenÂ’s cooperative sells its catch on the sand that fronts the town. ItÂ’s that Baja.

Surfers have long been drawn by the consistent breaks—like Los Cerritos, La Pastora, and San Pedrito—beyond town. Now, as then, one-lane dirt tracks angle off Mexico 19, wind through palo verde and mesquite, and spit you out on the beach. Development never really took hold, and expat artists and writers began dribbling down in the mid-eighties, attracted by the cheap hacienda rentals and the sunsets over the Pacific that radiate sky-wide.

Today, the 21st century has arrived in Todos Santos—barely. You can check your e-mail at the Internet café if you must, but it’s still best to leave your watch at home.

DETAILS: Stay in a poolside cabana ($35 for the first person, $5 each additional person) at Pescadero Surf Camp (011-52-612-130-3032,, seven miles south of town. On site is the areaÂ’s most reliable surf shop (board rentals, $12 per day).

2. Grand Canyon South
Copper Canyon, Mexico

"This young man will take care of you," the hotel van driver announced as he dropped us off at the trailhead, where our guide awaited. We were at the edge of Tararecua Canyon—part of the gargantuan seven-gorge Copper Canyon network—in the care of a “young man” who clearly wasn’t a day older than 11. Mountain bikers and hikers, ourselves included, are both enthralled and intimidated by the accessibility (an eight-hour drive south from El Paso) and vastness of Copper’s chasms, ranging from 3,000 to 6,000 feet deep. The canyons are crisscrossed with logging roads and footpaths, most worn by the Tarahumara Indians over the past several hundred years.

Hence the need for a local guide. Unlike us gringos, in our wicking fabrics and trail-runners, ours wore a loose white shirt and huaraches. The boy took off silently and surefootedly down the steep, boulder-strewn path, and my friends and I followed closely, if somewhat skeptically. At each fork, he paused before choosing a direction. But my worries of becoming lost in the labyrinth were unfounded: A couple of sweaty hours and less than five miles later we were soaking in a warm natural spring near the bottom. When our leader started back up, we scrambled to follow, knowing that other surprises—a hidden waterfall, an abandoned silver mine—might lie beyond the next creek.

DETAILS: Find guides, bike rentals, and trail access to Tararecua in Creel. Stay in town at Margarita's Plaza Mexicana (doubles, $46; 011-52-635-456-0245). The folks there can also set you up with guides for about $20 per day.

3. Your Own Private Pacific
Villa Amor, Mexico

There’s a rumor going around that Sayulita is a town on the verge—on the verge of becoming a glossy beach ‘burb of Puerto Vallarta. But on a four-day surf escape, all I found was a quiet Pacific fishing village with a crescent-shaped sweep of sand and some very friendly locals. Forty-five minutes north of PV, we turned onto a narrow dirt street and passed from the one-square-block commercial center into the resort district: several inns tucked behind wrought-iron gates, one of which was a find called Villa Amor.

Built into the side of a steep hillside overlooking Sayulita Bay, it seems to flow upward, each of the 23 open-air villas etched into its own private terrace. Except for the fact that all have wide verandas and staggering Pacific views and are reached by climbing dozens of stone steps, no two are alike. The one I stayed in had a plunge pool, two bedrooms with ceiling fans and gauzy mosquito nets, a kitchen, outdoor sitting room, and the thick trunk of a red papelillo tree growing through an artfully cut hole in the floor—tropical living at its finest. Were it not for stellar breaks just offshore—beloved by roving surf hounds for their consistent swells, sand bottoms, and long rides—it would be all too easy to settle into a wicker lounge chair and hide out there forever.

DETAILS: Suites at Villa Amor (011-52-329-291-3010, range from $50 per night for the simplest cabana to $250 for a two-bedroom palace.

4. Slip SlidinÂ’
Oaxaca, Mexico

Because he’d overslept and caused us to miss the only bus to our next destination, my boyfriend, Joaquin, was charged with the task of filling our last day in Oaxaca. He redeemed himself by calling Destinos Naturales, a local outfitter. Guides Igor Arango and Luis Valeriano picked us up at our pension and we were off—driving north 15 minutes into the Sierra Juarez to rappel down a waterfall.

First, we hiked. We followed goat paths through meadows and bramble patches, then rock-hopped uphill along a rushing stream through temperate forests. We scrambled over rocky outcrops and climbed up the walls of El Tubo—a 30-foot granite flume covered in moss and flanked with bromeliads.

Two hours later we reached the top of La Encantada, a 144-foot waterfall. Joaquin and I put on helmets and harnesses and got a rappelling lesson: "This is the brake hand—don’t let go." Igor attached rope from a sturdy tree trunk to my harness, and I dropped down the middle of the thundering waterfall. The force of the water meant that letting go of the brake was easier than muscling the rope upward through its belaying device, but we managed and emerged drenched and ecstatic at the bottom. Wringing our clothes out was pointless, because a steady drizzle had begun. So after waiting to let our hearts stop racing, we sloshed back down the mountain, happy to have stayed in Oaxaca after all.

DETAILS: An all-day hiking and rappelling adventure with Destinos Naturales (011-52-951-518-7277, e-mail [email protected]) costs $39 per person.