Travel

Baja Sur's colorful sights

Some roads are worth driving solely for the sake of driving them.Pacific Coast Highway, for one, lures road warriors to cruise itscurves, braving skinny lanes painted along cliffs for glimpses ofthe Pacific Ocean. Though less treacherous, what remains of Route66 won't get you anywhere fast, but it will get you from Chicago toLos Angeles while satisfying your hunger for nostalgia.

Baja California's Mexican Federal Highway 1 is such a road. Dubbedthe Carretera Transpeninsular (Transpeninsular Highway), it spansthe entire length of Mexico's left leg and, essentially, it's justtwo lanes of rough asphalt running through the desert; its milemarkers are taco shacks, cactus and stray dogs. But along thelength of it, little dirt roads reach out to the water -- thePacific Ocean to the west, the Sea of Cortes to the east, andpretty bays along the way -- inspiring side trips to primewhale-watching lookouts, booming sea lion colonies, crystal-clearsnorkeling, unparalleled surfing coves and mouthwatering Mexicanseafood. The CT possesses PCH's best feature -- incomparable oceanvistas -- and Route 66's worst -- slow-going driving.

Still, people drive it for the sake of driving it. And I wanted tobe among those people. Marooned in the Midwest in February, Iplanned to rent a Jeep in Tijuana, the CT's northern startingpoint, and commence on a soul-searching adventure of a road tripreplete with fish tacos every day and starlit beach camping everynight.

But there was a catch: A Baja California tourism agent (as well asthe U.S. State Department) advised against travel in northern Baja.There had been a surge in violent crimes against tourists over thepast few months, and Tijuana and its northern Baja surroundingswere considered off-limits.

But Southern Baja -- Baja California Sur -- beckoned. It'sliterally a different state in Mexico -- a more relaxed one. Therewould be no traversing in Tijuana, which was fine; that city isn'twhat it used to be, and what it used to be wasn't so great to beginwith. There would also not be 1,000 miles of dusty desert andpotholes to log from north to south. Instead, I would begin in SanJose del Cabo, on the southern tip, and drive a 350-mile looparound Baja Sur, weaving through small, arty towns and cactus-ladenlandscapes with idyllic seaside views. There would be boutiquehotels instead of campsites; sit-down meals instead of tacospescados. I would still be driving for the sake of driving ...just less of it.

Day 1: San Jose del Cabo

I enlisted my photographer sister to sit shotgun, and we startedour journey in this historic town. San Jose's dusty, narrow streetsreflect its intrinsic colonial vibe; building facades stand proudlyon the sidewalks and hide gorgeous, palm-shaded atriums. Our hotel,Casa Natalia, followed suit, its courtyard's strategically placedpalms creating pockets of privacy along its long, mod-Mexicanlandscape. Hotels and shops line Plaza Mijares, which wasundergoing a major beautifying project in anticipation of SanJose's annual mid-March festival; and on side streets, tequila barsand galleries mix with residences and restaurants.

We wandered around all day and stumbled upon La Panga, just off theplaza, by chance -- its facade giving away nothing of its historichacienda structure and the lush, graduated terraces within. Theprix-fixe lunch here wasn't cheap (we paid about $25 each), but itwas worth it: smoked fish tostadas with jalapeno-soy dipping sauce,grilled chicken breast in mole sauce over fried plantains and acurious lavender-infused rice pudding that left us more thansatisfied. We lingered for hours, and no one complained. Such isMexico: There is never, ever a hurry.

Day 2: The Eastern Cape

Fitting, then, that our day trip to Cabo Pulmo, a tiny fishingvillage on the Eastern Cape, took about 2 1/2 hours longer thanexpected. This was the one off-roading diversion from Highway 1,and we paid for it. Just east of San Jose del Cabo, asphalt turnsinto gravel; gravel turns into dirt; dirt turns into sandbarsdotted with stray dogs and cattle. We navigated via bumps in thedesert, trying to keep a view of the ocean in the passenger's seatwindow like some kind of compass. There is no signage of any kind-- no "Cabo Pulmo -- 100 km," no "Turn Right Here Lest You RiskHitting a Cactus Patch," no "This Is Actually Someone's Very LongDriveway, So Following It Is Fruitless" -- which makes forks in theroad kind of a cruel lady-or-tiger scenario. This treacherousnavigation went on for about 3 hours at a snail's pace.

Cabo Pulmo could have been worth it, too. Hardly a village, it's atiny cluster of businesses, the largest of which is a bare-bonesdiving resort adjacent to a 25,000-year-old state-protected coralreef, rumored to foster the best snorkeling in North America. Butlate winter winds made for choppy conditions, less than ideal forstudying underwater wildlife.

In weather like that, the snorkeling shops shut their doors. Suchis Mexico. Instead, we ate a simple lunch at Los Caballeros, one ofthe three restaurants in town (and the only one that was actuallyserving at the time) and took the longer but faster paved Highway 1route home.

We returned to civilization feeling a little defeated, but thenight's lodgings, at the Cabo Surf Hotel, more than made up for it.It's a boutique resort situated on a beautiful curve of Los CabosCorridor, the flawless oceanfront stretch of Highway 1 between CaboSan Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. Steps lead from the restaurantdown to the sand, and the pool's deep end meets the ocean's horizonwith a perfect vista for impromptu whale watching. (I spottedthree.) Members of the staff here have the laid-back attitude ofsurfers, which isn't surprising: Los Cabos Corridor is rumored tobe the best surf spot in Baja, so I booked a lesson for first thingin the morning.

Day 3: Los Cabos Corridor and the Central Cape

For those who have surfed, you know how thrilling it is; for thosewho haven't, do it as soon as possible -- ideally in Baja Sur,where the water is (relatively) warm, the waves are big andbeautiful, and you can hire a dude named Jose to show you the ropes... and extract bits of sea urchin spine from your foot should youaccidentally encounter one on a wipeout. (Let it be known that as Iwrite this, almost three weeks after the Sea Urchin Incident, Ihave just extracted the final bits. They are stubborn.)

Injuries aside, it was an incredible experience. Jose taught me, inbroken surfer English, how to pop up on the board and stay standingonce I'd caught a wave. And it totally worked: I was up for a while(well, 6 seconds, but still ...) on my first try. Even though Ipractically paddled my board straight into a seasoned Cabo vet(it's an incredibly popular spot for local surfers) and swallowedenough seawater to nearly puke, it's still my fondest memory of thetrip.

With a souvenir from Los Cabos Corridor planted firmly in my foot,we returned to Highway 1 bound for Baja California Sur's capital,La Paz, located in the crook of its eastern inlet. It's a lengthydrive -- about 4 hours -- and we stopped along the way for lunch atthe modest but popular Hotel Palomar in Santiago, on the edge ofthe mountainous Central Cape region.

Known primarily for its zoo (which we skipped; a zoo in the middleof the desert is bound to be depressing anyway), Santiago isessentially a small town square surrounded by orange groves anddusty shrubbery. There is no bank; there is no tourism. There arehot springs in nearby Agua Caliente, and we'd received some sketchydirt road directions back in San Jose, but after the road to CaboPulmo, we decided to stay the course.

And that course is rocky. And mountainous. And slow. The lanes arenarrow, and passing is prohibited, but the locals do it anyway,barely slowing down for the topes (speed bumps), of whichthere are many, and the dozens of cattle sauntering to and froacross the highway in search of the most edible weeds. We drovethrough San Antonio and then El Triunfo, dusty little villageswhose decrepit, abandoned bars and cafes sit right up on theCarretera Transpeninsular.

We came upon the sprawling mass of La Paz and its 300,000inhabitants from miles away, inching toward the heart of it -- themilelong marina and promenade -- as the sun inched toward thehorizon. It cast a hazy orange glow over the town, mellowingeverything, warming it. There's an easygoing vibe to the city and,best as we could tell, few tourists. In their place are streetvendors and a bustling nightlife among the locals. Most of therestaurants are set up patio-style facing the marina, so theadjacent promenade along Paseo Obregon functions with thesee-and-be-seen air of a catwalk.

Day 4: La Paz

Since Cabo Pulmo proved fruitless for snorkeling, La Paz -- and itsIsla Espiritu Santo, tempting explorers with sea lion colonies andsnorkeling caves -- was meant to be redeeming. But after spendingthe morning waiting at the abandoned tourist office for nearly anhour (again, such is Mexico), I hit up a half-dozen snorkelingshops, only to learn that most trips require at least four peopleto fill a boat.

Sensing my disappointment, one of the managers in a snorkeling shopoverlooking the marina offered a tip. "Talk to Hector," he said,gesturing out the window to a white-haired guy squinting andsmoking on a kelpy fishing boat. "He'll take you."

Hector, it turned out, was more than willing to help. He and hissilent, chain-smoking friend told me they'd try to summon threeother tourists to fill a boat that afternoon, but that if theycouldn't find companions, they'd take me alone to the island forabout $100. I was to ride with Hector's friend in his stinkyfishing boat, and he'd bring me back before sundown.

Hector offered his card, on which there is a photograph of himhanging upside-down next to a swordfish and, among a fewtouristy-sounding titles, the words, "LOVE ME." And at that moment,I did love Hector, for he had promised that, one way or the other,I'd go snorkeling that afternoon.

My sister, however, didn't feel the love. "You're seriously goingto get on some rowboat by yourself with some random old dude and gosnorkeling for the day?" she asked. Only then did it seemirrational. "No," she said. "I will not let you do that."

Instead, we went to lunch.

Following the recommendations of two bellhops, we ate the best mealof the trip at a crowded local favorite by the name ofBismark-cito. It's an open-air eatery on Paseo Obregon, shieldedfrom the marina by a cluster of light-strewn trees and plastictables spilling out onto the sidewalk. At half past two, the placewas packed to the gills.

We ordered two rounds of fish tacos and, while we waited, nibbledon a brimming heap of warm, perfectly salted homemade tortillachips and a sauce that resembled Thousand Island dressing in colorand consistency, but tasted like Mexican bliss -- a delectableblend of queso, sour cream, salsa and guacamole. It washeaven.

Not quite heaven: The faint smell of rank water came from La Paz'smarina, which is polluted. The locals know not to wade, andinstead, beachgoers head down the coast a few miles. But there'splenty to do in town, including a variety of shopping and visitinga handful of museums, including the Gray Whale Community Museum,which pays tribute to Baja's largest commuters.

Days 5-6: Todos Santos

After a peaceful night's rest at the charming Posado de las Floreson the east side of the marina, we filled up the Jeep and hit theroad. Highway 1 leads inland at San Marcos, due south of La Paz,but we picked up Highway 19 headed southwest toward the only realdestination worth stopping for along the Western Cape: the dustyartists' colony of Todos Santos, nestled against the Sierra de laLaguna Mountains. The drive from La Paz down to Cabo San Lucas iswrought with cacti, cattle and little else. But Todos Santos, whichsprang from a palm grove in the early 18th century, is an oasis, aPueblo Magico (magical town), as it was named a few years back bythe folks who run the country's board of tourism.

Artists love it, surfers love it; even British people love it. Ourhotel, The Hotelito, was run by a British expatriate named Jennywith an impossibly regal London accent and impossibly tan skin fora limey. We arrived at the ubermodern quartet of cottages just asJenny was sashaying off to see the whales at Playa La Cachora, thebeach down the road. "It's absolutely magical," she crooned,her giant straw hat flapping in the wind. "They're so close, youcan see the babies' eyes."

My sister and I let that thought set in as she sauntered away,exchanging a knowing look that said, "Someone's had a few too manymargaritas," but decided to head to the beach to see for ourselves.And it's true: During the winter months the migrating whales are soclose, you can (almost) see their eyes.

Todos Santos is touted as more of an artist and surfer communitythan a prime destination for whale watching. But it's got it all,including a rich cultural center, a bajillion fine-art galleriesand a half-dozen fantastic restaurants, including a wood-firedpizza joint that might do well in Chicago.

Our second night was spent at the Todos Santos Inn, the gorgeoushistoric home of a former sugar baron that's since been convertedinto suites furnished with oil paintings, princess-stylefour-poster king beds and deep soaking tubs. There's even a littlewine bar serving a handful of regional wines (the whites beat thereds) as well as West Coast and European imports.

There are lots of other amazing things about this town, too.

Day 7: Cabo San Lucas

By the end of our stay in Todos Santos, we wanted to make like ourBritish hostess and move there. But Highway 1 (and the flight home)was calling, an hour south in Cabo San Lucas. Everything writtenabout Cabo warned me it was loud, obnoxious and primarilyfrequented by spring-breakers and honeymooners looking for the bestswim-up bar in Baja -- a scene we had just spent the past weekavoiding. It's about as far from traditional Baja as it gets: Thereis a Hard Rock Hotel; there is a Home Depot; everyone speaksEnglish.

We arrived in the evening and booked a room at the quaint BungalowsHotel, which was nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood. Andwhile we didn't take advantage of Cabo's booming nightlife, wefound a nice authentic dinner spot, once again recommended by abellhop. (Bellhops, I've decided, can always be trusted for gooddinner recommendations.)

El Meson de Zapata is in the thick of Cabo's downtown hoopla, butit's also quite understated, authentically friendly and serves thebest flan in the world -- or, at least Baja Sur.

True, one might find comparable delicacies in Baja Norte, andperhaps some day I'll scour the length of the peninsula in searchof it. But looking back on the trip now, it's apparent that BajaSur is worth the drive solely for the sake of driving.

Getting there:

There are two main airports in Baja California Sur: AeropuertoInternacional Los Cabos (SJD), just outside of San Jose del Cabo;and Aeropuerto General Manuel Marquez de Leon (LAP), serving LaPaz. Flights to SJD are less expensive and more frequent. Oneoption is to buy one nonstop domestic ticket to San DiegoInternational Airport and a connecting international ticket fromthere to SJD, as Mexican flights from San Diego are fairly frequentand less expensive.

Getting around:

If you're going the road-trip route, you're obviously going to needa car. Most major rental car companies are represented at SJD, anda few keep satellite offices in major towns like Cabo San Lucas andSan Jose del Cabo. While the CT is paved and in passable condition,it's not uncommon for smaller roads and side streets to be unpavedor in very poor repair. Our advice? Get a Jeep or similarall-terrain vehicle designed to handle rough roads, and wear yourseat belt -- it's a bumpy ride.

Staying there:

Large-scale beachside resorts are common in Cabo San Lucas and LosCabos Corridor, but most lodging in Baja Sur consists of boutiquehotels and small inns, many of which include a large traditionalbreakfast. A few recommendations in ... San Jose del Cabo: CasaNatalia (from $230; 888-277-3814; casanatalia.com)is gorgeous and boasts one of the best restaurants in town. LosCabos Corridor: Cabo Surf Hotel (from $265; 858-964-5117; cabosurfhotel.com) is a full-service boutique resortand spa, and operates a surf shack with lessons. La Paz: Posadade las Flores (from $150; 619-378-0103; posadadelasflores.com) is wonderfully intimate andright on the marina. Todos Santos: The Hotelito (from $85;011-52-612-145-0099, thehotelito.com) is a modern oasis with Britishhospitality; Todos Santos Inn (from $125;011-52-612-145-0040; todossantosinn.com) meshes historicarchitectural details with a lush landscape and traditional suites.Cabo San Lucas: The Bungalows Inn (from $115; 888-424-CABO;cabobungalows.com) features simple rooms, warmhospitality, and a DVD library should you opt out of Cabo's noisynightlife.

Dining there:

Fish tacos are the standard fare in Baja California Sur, but inlarger towns, contemporary Mexican has found a niche. A fewrecommendations in ... San Jose del Cabo: Mi Cocina (averageentree $16; 888-277-3814; casanatalia.com/dining.cfm) serves formal modernMexican entrees with inventive cocktails and incredible desserts;La Panga Antigua (average entree $15; 011-52-624-142-4041;lapanga.com)serves pricey contemporary Mexican and seafood cuisine in agorgeous historic hacienda; French Riviera Restaurant andBakery (average entree $10; 011-52-624-104-3125; frenchrivieraloscabos.com) smells as good as ittastes, and serves sweet and savory crepes and dozens oftraditional French and Mexican pastries. Santiago: HotelPalomar (average entree $8; 011-52-624-142-0604) draws visitorsto its orange grove-enclosed patio for traditional Mexican fare. LaPaz: Bismark-cito (average entree $10; 011-52-612-128-4900)serves the best fish tacos -- and homemade salsas -- in town; ElPatron Bar & Grill (average entree $22;011-52-612-125-9977; ladivinauva.com) is a traditional Mexican seafoodrestaurant with incredible coconut shrimp and a great mariachiband. Todos Santos: Cafe Santa Fe (average entree $30;011-52-612-145-0340) is Italian, upscale, pricey and well worth it;Buena Vida (average entree $11; 011-52-612-134-3100) is arelatively new pizzeria and bar in the historic district. Cabo SanLucas: El Meson de Zapata (average entree $15;011-52-624-144-3982) is a welcome respite from Cabo's mediocreMexican food tourist traps and serves amazing flan.

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