Our columnist, Jada Yuan, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2018 list. This dispatch brings her to the East Cape of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, which took the No. 11 spot on the list and is the 10th stop on Jada’s itinerary.
I sped along a two-hour inland drive from touristy San José del Cabo, until paved highway gave way to dirt roads and dust and the coast came into view. Within an hour of parking, I was snorkeling with sea lions in Gulf of California waters containing the oldest of three coral reefs on the west coast of North America.
In a world of seemingly constant dire environmental news, the 17,500-acre Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park is a rare success story. When resident fishermen stopped coming home with sufficient hauls in the early 1990s, they proposed a radical plan: Stop commercial fishing and let the reef rebuild itself. Led by researchers from the Autonomous University of Baja California and the Castro family — which runs Cabo Pulmo Divers and Cabo Pulmo Sports Center, where I booked my $50, two-hour snorkeling tour — the villagers lobbied the government to designate the area a marine protected zone, and enforced the no-fishing edicts themselves. Between 1995 and 2009, the reef’s biodiversity increased 463 percent, and every major species returned, even large predators like bull sharks and manta rays.
On our first dip in the water, we saw a stunning array of fish ranging from yellow-striped snapper to blue iridescent scissortail damselfish. On our second dip, we swam with sea lions, who often got so close to us we could touch them, in a friendly but not entirely domesticated way.
“When I thought of Baja and Cabo San Lucas, I just thought it would be party people and filled with Americans,” said Luis Roberto Díaz Flores, a 24-year-old brand content producer from Mexico City I met snorkeling. He was vacationing with friends in La Paz, the state’s capital city, two hours north of Los Cabos. “But for the four days we’ve been here, I’ve just been surprised over and over again. To me, the places I’ve seen here are probably in my top five that I’ve ever experienced in my own country.”
The peninsula seems synonymous with Los Cabos, comprising the cities of Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo, where I stayed, all connected by a 20-mile “corridor” of resorts and golf courses. For me, the southern tip of Baja turned out to be like an immersive choose-your-own-adventure novel. It asks you the existential question of which unmarked dirt road you’ll take, and has you answer it — and pay the consequences — all in real time. Here are a few of those turns, and the resulting ups and downs.
My directive was to explore the peninsula’s lesser-known East Cape — but I got greedy. The only time I’ve been to Baja was when I was 12 and, this time around, I wanted to gobble up the whole coastline. That included a visit to the beaches of Todos Santos, an artsy town on the west coast that was not at all on the itinerary. The pit stop, as they are sometimes wont to do when you’re not paying attention, turned into five hours.
They were five beautiful hours. I wandered around the picturesque Hotel San Cristóbal, with its infinity pool overlooking Punta Lobos, an active fisherman’s beach that’s non-swimmable, like most of the water on the Pacific side of Baja, because of surf and undertow. Locals drove their 4x4s straight onto the sand; kids played soccer with balls they frequently kicked into the waves.
The biggest time suck, though, was trying to find Las Palmas Tropicales, a palm oasis where beachgoers can sometimes share space with wild horses. The entrance, I’d been told, was an unmarked dirt road a few minutes past the dirt road I’d taken to Punta Lobos.
Here is where my choose-your-own-adventure theory of Baja began. Every dirt path I turned down had unmarked forks in the road, which led to different unmarked forks. One choice took me to a steep, winding hill road with grooves so deep I thought my tire would get wedged in one. Another took me into a den of snarling dogs.
Many choices later, I figured out that the unmarked road I should have taken was the second one past mile marker 57, just before the bridge. And that I needed to follow the two other cars headed to the same destination and blow past a scary “Propiedad Privada” sign. Was it worth it when I finally pulled into a thick grove of the thinnest, tallest palm trees I’ve ever seen, looking wild and unkempt? It was. That is, until I realized I still had another two-hour drive to east coast beaches I wanted to see, and I’d probably be getting there after dark.
That’s when I came up with my second Baja theory: Beaches here are all pretty spectacular. Ask Mexicans for recommendations and pick the one that doesn’t have you driving at night on twisty roads with cow crossings.
In the name of not having to drive so far afield, the trip I’d take if I came back would actually begin in La Paz, which puts you closest to La Balandra Beach — popular among Mexican vacationers for its crystal clear shallow waters and routinely voted the most beautiful in the country. It’s also just a two-hour ferry ride complete with whale watching from the uninhabited island national park of Espíritu Santo, where snorkelers can swim among whale sharks. (To make the ferry from the south would require a drive starting around 5 a.m.) “You get closer to the island, and I swear, that’s the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Mr. Díaz Flores.
I’d also return to the quaint eastern beach town of Los Barriles, which I drove through at night. It seems to have a high gringo quotient, but few of the tourist-driven annoyances of Los Cabos, where a common complaint is being constantly approached about buying a timeshare. Bonus, the location is within striking distance of Cabo Plumo and El Chorro Hot Springs in the mountains of Santiago.
You will hear a lot about the trio of restaurant-farms on the east side of San José del Cabo: Flora Farms, Acre and Los Tamarindos. They are delicious and beautiful. But the meal I’ll remember most was the battered and deep fried fish tacos from the no-frills Tacqueria Rossy, located in what might be described as San José del Cabo’s taco district off Highway 1. I had headed there on the passionate recommendation of an Instagram follower and had that praise backed up by a Cabo resident I asked for directions. My plastic plate came with two corn tortillas and two unappealing lumps of fish that turned out to be incredibly moist. Grilled jalapeños and every topping from the abundant salsa bar brought them into tacos-to-write-home-about territory.
San José del Cabo’s famed Thursday Art Walk began soon after I arrived. I saw moving mixed media self-portraits from the artist Hugo Aguilar — and a veritable river of gringos (myself included). Yet even on the most touristy of nights, a part of real Mexico broke through. As I was leaving La Lupita Taco & Mezcal, where I’d spent the night tasting spirits and enjoying the house rock band, a mariachi septet walked in. They launched into the classics “La Bikina” and “La Negra,” and the entire front room of the restaurant began to sing along. It appeared that the band, Mariachi Cabo, had finished its rounds at local restaurants and now was just having fun. No tip hat made the rounds, but the members gladly accepted shots of tequila.
“We’re going to another beach. You’re welcome to come with us,” said Mr. Díaz Flores, the vacationer from Mexico City I had met on my snorkeling jaunt. He and his friends had gotten a tip about a hidden haven toward the northern exit of the park.
A dirt road led us to a stretch of sand and a sign for Playa Miramar. Clusters of tents overlooked gently rolling surf. Towels and swimsuits were draped across every surface of a pickup truck to dry. By no design, I’d come to Mexico on Semana Santa, or Holy Week, when most of the country, including my new friends from Mexico City, happened to be on break.
What Mr. Díaz Flores and I found after a little asking around was a heartening makeshift town of Cabo San Lucas locals. All echoed the same sentiment, that they had driven two hours from their homes because this is the closest swimmable camping beach available to them. Many of the beaches along the Hotel Row of their city and San José were private, and the ones that weren’t had strict no swimming or camping policies because of fierce waves and riptides.
On Playa Miramar, though, they’d built a cocoon of relaxation I can only hope to mimic some day. A taxi driver beachgoer we met drank beer while lounging in a makeshift couch his children had sculpted in sand. His eldest son fished nearby while an uncle dove in with a net and another friend rowed a boat trawling for bait parallel to the shore. They had nothing but tiny baitfish to show for the day — but then, as the moon rose, orange and bright as a spotlight, nabbed three big catches at once. “Es la ley,” shrugged Erick Castro, a Cabo-based finance manager who was fishing alongside them. (“It’s the law.”)
What had struck me most about Baja, beyond even the beaches, was a spirit of generosity that reminded me of being back home in New Mexico. I saw that generosity in drivers who were constantly stopping their cars in the middle of a highway to allow me to make a left turn. Or my waiter at Flora Farms, Jorge Solano, who invited me to go to La Baladra Beach with his entire family. Or a plumber on a camping holiday at Playa Miramar who gave me his name and number and invited me to his niece’s quinceañera next year — an invitation that I soon lost to a gust of wind. Anyone in Cabo, if you know a plumber named Oscar, please tell him I’d be honored if he’d get in touch.
Don’t drive at night like I did. Taking the two-lane Highway 1 from Cabo Pulmo to San José, I got stuck behind exceedingly slow cars more times than I could count. “Only cars?” Mr. Solano, my Flora Farms waiter, remarked. “Usually it’s horses or cows, and the whole drive can take four hours.” One night, while driving on the regional road, at far too late an hour, what crossed my path but: a herd of cows.
I’ll admit to having qualms about heading to Los Cabos after hearing about its exceedingly high murder rate in 2017, and the shooting death of its police chief in December. I did notice police checks on the highway between San José and Cabo San Lucas every night I drove that way, though I didn’t experience any incidents of my own. (A gay friend of mine and his partner had a very unpleasant time being harassed in Cabo San Lucas — which a longtime hospitality worker in the area told me didn’t surprise her.) La Paz, too, was the site of a lengthy shootout between police and cartel members in January. The cartels and tourism seem to operate in very different spheres. You’ll have to decide for yourself if the risk is worth it.
A final note on lodging: The only room I could find for a last-minute booking in San José del Cabo was at Alegranza Luxury Resorts. I walked in to find a three-bedroom, three-bathroom palace with a balcony overlooking a distant ocean for $248 a night, plus a small resort fee. It had multiple pools and was one day the site of a children’s Easter party that I got to see from my room, with an animated storyteller recounting “La Resurrección de Jesus Cristo.”
Jada Yuan will be traveling to every place on this year’s 52 Places to Go list. For more coverage or to send Jada tips and suggestions, please follow her on Twitter @jadabird and on Instagram @alphajada.
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