Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.
There’s a tarantula creeping up the mesh door of our tent. It’s black, furry, and the size of a tennis ball. These light brown Baja species are relatively harmless, their venom only slightly more powerful than a bee sting. But it looks intimidating, especially since we’re in the middle of nowhere. We’re at Rancho Cacachilas, a 40,000-acre private eco-ranch dedicated to adventure and sustainability. The ranch sits in the rugged Sierra Cacachilas, an arid landscape of red granite and centuries-old cardon cactus 45 minutes via a sandy four-wheel-drive road from the closest village of El Sargento, which is an hour east of La Paz. Since my compadre Brian and I are the only people camping here tonight, and we don’t have our own wheels, we’re a captive audience.
The feeling that the arachnid stirs up in me is a metaphor for how I’ve been feeling lately about Mexico—easily spooked. I have loved this country since I saw the Ballet Folklórico de Mexico perform in Minneapolis when I was a kid. The graceful dancers, with their elegant costumes, instilled in me a deep curiosity about the country, which inspired me to take Spanish-language classes. My primitive language skills have allowed me to communicate with surf instructors and other locals on a decade’s worth of family spring-break vacations to a sleepy town near Puerto Vallarta. In my twenties, I road-tripped with friends from Minnesota through Mexico to Guatemala and back, camping en route, exploring remote Maya ruins of the Yucatán, and eating cabrito asado in Monterrey, pescado in Veracruz, and pozole in Guadalajara. In the decades since, I’ve traveled through Chiapas, surfed and lazed on the beach in coastal villages north of Puerto Vallarta, and road-tripped a handful of times through southern Baja to mountain-bike, kayak, and gaze in wonder at sea turtles smaller than the palm of my hand.
But as much as I love Mexico, my connection to the south has felt strained of late, thanks to an echo chamber of bad news that gets amplified in the U.S. media. Yes, there are certainly parts of the country that American travelers should probably avoid due to crime—namely the states of Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas—according to the U.S. State Department. And, yes, there are also ever increasing numbers of gated five-star hotels in resort communities like Los Cabos. But where, I wondered, could I still do the things I love, like kayak, mountain bike, hike, and camp, without compromising my safety? I found my answer at Rancho Cacachilas.
“I got involved with this project because I love mountain biking,” says Rafael Camposeco, the project manager for tourism and trail development at Rancho Cacachilas. The 40-year-old former archaeologist grew up in Mexico City and owned an expedition mountain-bike tour company in Oaxaca before he was lured to the property in 2012 by its incredible potential. Before building the first trail, Camposeco spent months surveying the land with a geologist. “But it’s not only about the mountain biking here,” he says. “That’s less than a quarter of what the ranch is trying to do.”
Rancho Cacachilas, which opened to guests about three years ago, is composed of four smaller ranches spread out over its expanse. One of them, the main hub, called El Chivato, has eight safari-style tents and four brick-and-mortar resort rooms with a rooftop deck. The amenities here are basic but comfortable and include communal hot-water outdoor showers, a pool with stunning views to the hazy mountainous outline of Isla Ceralvo in the Sea of Cortez, and an outdoor restaurant headed up by Alejandro Villagómez, who worked with chef Enrique Olvera at the famed Pujol restaurant in Mexico City before he took on the challenge of remote alfresco dining fueled largely by the organic gardens at Rancho Cacachilas. Our first evening here, a large group, fresh off an REI Adventures sea-kayaking trip, was spending the night at El Chivato, but the next two nights we had the entire camp to ourselves, an unusual scenario.
In total the ranch employs about 65 people, from scientists to vaqueros (cowboys) to mountain-bike guides to organic gardeners. These employees take guests on mule rides or mountain bikes into the wilderness; hold running races like the 35K and 54K Don Diablo Trail Run every November; host seminars on irrigation and animal husbandry for local ranchers; and offer workshops on beekeeping, organic gardening, cheese making, and even rainwater harvesting for the rest of us. Through partners like Sea Kayak Adventures, they can arrange paddling journeys and other excursions in the Sea of Cortez and at protected reserves along the Pacific.
The ranch’s under-the-radar owner is Christy Walton, the widow of John Walton, one of the four children of Walmart founder Sam Walton. Christy fell in love with Baja while sailing in the Sea of Cortez with her husband in the 1980s. Almost anyone who rides a mountain bike has tuned in to the fact that Christy’s nephews, Tom and his brother, Steuart, have invested more than $74 million through the Walton Foundation to create 160 miles of trails and cycling infrastructure near Bentonville, Arkansas, the corporate headquarters of the brand. Rancho Cacachilas used the same Bentonville trail designers, Progressive Trail Design, as well as consultants from the International Mountain Bicycling Association, and has so far invested millions of dollars in the property’s existing 26 miles, employing 14 full-time trail builders and an erosion expert from France to ensure that increasingly torrential downpours don’t wash out their hard work. The master plan is to build at least 25 more miles of trails.
Christy Walton’s plan, however, goes well beyond mountain biking. (I reached out to Walton for comment, but she declined to be interviewed. “Christy likes to stay off the radar and does not give out interviews or quotes and would like the story to focus on the ranch, conservation, and holistic approach,” her communications director, Luisa Balderas, explained in an email.) According to Camposeco and Balderas, Walton’s vision for Rancho Cacachilas is to use it as a research and conservation petri dish for environmentalists, biologists, geologists, gardeners, and ranchers who are investigating things like new plant and animal species and experimenting with watershed, land, and livestock management as a way to create a long-term management plan. Since 2013, a revolving door of researchers, organized through the San Diego Museum of Natural History, have rigorously inventoried the region, finding new endemic species of trees, reptiles, butterflies, bats, and a spider even bigger than the tarantula we saw—this one softball size and related to the venomous Brazilian wandering spider.
With luck, that elusive spider will stay in its cave this morning. After a 7 A.M. breakfast of huevos rancheros and fresh tortillas, we hop in a truck with Camposeco, who drives us down the mountain to the village of El Sargento. This is where we find the ranch’s Mountain and Bike Hub, a well-appointed shop with a pump track next door, where we sign waivers, rent Specialized Stumpjumper 29ers, then hop back in the truck to drive 45 minutes to a trailhead that links three different routes—La Reina, the Monte Cristo loop, and Santa Rosa—for a 16-mile ride.
It’s about 80 degrees, and we’re a long way from anything resembling an emergency room. We’re on our best behavior, skipping the B lines (which tempt Brian with their more aggressive gap jumps and drops) and instead stick to the smoothly engineered, sandy cross-country trails with bermed switchbacks that are fortified with granite boulders chiseled together in a perfect puzzle, so well built that they bring to mind a Roman road. The heavy rain that has fallen in the past few weeks makes this normally arid desert feel almost tropical, with multihued greens sprouting everywhere, like the lomboy tree, whose sap coagulates the blood—a good thing to know if one of us happens to crash. Even the normally bone-dry arroyos are running with water, a welcome cooldown for our sweaty feet. We end the ride at one of the ranch’s remote casitas, tucked into a valley on a stream bank, where we sit on an outdoor shaded portico to eat a barbecue-beef feast accompanied by a cold Mexicali-made cerveza called Cucapá that’s tinged with agave honey.
We’ve ridden a fraction of the trail network today. Tomorrow we’ll start from El Chivato and ride an even more remote and technical 12-mile section, past an old silver mine, up to a ridge with distracting views of the sea, and down a sandy technical switchback, where I’ll have my first wipeout of the weekend. (Luckily, it doesn’t yield enough blood to necessitate the sap of a lomboy tree.) Midride we reach the organic gardens, sprouting with basil, corn, squash, carrots, and kale, and check in on the resident goats who produce the ranch’s delectable cheese.
In four days, we barely scratch the surface of the ranch’s hiking and mountain-biking trails. In June the ten-mile ridgeline Sky Trail will be complete, climbing a few thousand feet higher than the existing trails, topping out with uninhibited views to the Sea of Cortez, and offering steep downhill sections for riders who like to get sendy. Like the existing trails, the Sky Trail will be fortified with local granite in all the right places.
As Camposeco told me earlier: “This place is built to last.”
No trip to Baja is complete without time on the water. Since Rancho Cacachilas has no coastline access, it partners with local sustainability-minded companies like Sea Kayak Adventures to offer guests kayaking and whale-watching outings. Our original plan was to spend three days kayaking the perimeter of 31-square-mile Isla Espíritu Santo, the Unesco World Heritage site in the Sea of Cortez, where sea lions play in water so turquoise it looks fake. The winds from the north, however, are blasting at 25 miles per hour, which scratches that plan.
Luckily, Baja also borders the Pacific Ocean. Sea Kayak Adventures’ on-the-fly new plan is to drive four hours west to the Pacific fishing village of Puerto López Mateos, the jumping-off point to Magdalena Bay, part of the nearly three-million-acre Baja California Pacific Islands Biosphere Reserve. The 89-square-mile Magdalena Island acts as a buffer and a protective sanctuary for gray whales that migrate from Alaska in the winter to give birth. It’s also home to five species of sea turtles: green, black, yellow, hawksbill, and olive ridley.
The whales haven’t arrived yet, but the placid bay teems with bottlenose dolphins and an occasional sea turtle, always expertly spotted by our guide, Sergio Navarro, the son of a fisherman who grew up in the nearby village of Puerto San Carlos and who now works as the manager of Sea Kayak Adventures’ Baja operations. Sea turtles are so protected here, he tells us, that “killing a turtle is worse than killing a person.”
We hug the shoreline of Magdalena Island, an otherworldly landscape of shifting sand dunes, some two stories high, and miles of mangrove forests, a miraculous ecosystem that can thrive in salt water and is one of the most effective carbon filters on the planet.
After a lazy, downwind nine-mile paddle, we stop for the evening to set up our first camp, a sandy oasis backed by a small sand mountain. Before dinner, Brian and I pitch our tent and set out on a short hike. Sergio warns us that the island is inhabited by coyotes that can get aggressive, especially if they’re in packs.
“Coyotes will take anything outside your tent, like your flip-flops,” he says, explaining that the wild dogs have ingeniously figured out a way to use the shoes to collect water.
Brian and I climb the dunes. To the west, the sun is setting fast. In the east, the full moon rises. We see a pack of coyotes. They keep their distance. The next morning, we climb out of our tent to find one standing on top of the deck of our tandem kayak, licking it clean of dew.
Three days on the water isn’t enough. For that matter, four days at Rancho Cacachilas isn’t either. Who wouldn’t love to sea-kayak in a new marine park, mountain-bike state-of-the-art trails, and eat fresh Mexican food forever? But even in this short week, our time in Baja has reassured me that the Mexico of my memories still exists. It’s just a little harder to find it.
If You Go: The ranch is open from October 1 to May 31 (prices start at $250 per person a day and include accommodations, meals, guides, and activities). December to February is the cool, dry season, when daily temperatures average 79 degrees. Los Cabos International Airport is 2.5 hours south. Depending on where you live, a faster, less expensive option may be to fly to San Diego, walk across the Cross Border Xpress bridge to Tijuana International Airport, then catch a domestic flight to La Paz’s Manuel Márquez de León International Airport, an hour west of the ranch. For more information on the region, see Outside’s Ultimate Guide to Baja.