Travel Mexico Baja California Peninsula Mexico BC Mexico Hotels
Baja Peninsula Mexico - We laughed at the highway sign: ''Camino Sinuoso'' -- ''Winding Road.'' An understatement. Baja California's nearly 1,000-mile Transpeninsular Highway snakes incessantly down the Pacific from Tijuana, switches back up and over the sierra, drops to the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California), and finally twists into Los Cabos. The road, fishing villages, mountain mission towns, beach communities and small ranching enclaves were our reasons for making our sixth annual drive of nearly 1,000 miles last February. By SaraGay Dammann
Once again we reset the car radio to Mexican stations playing guitar- and accordion-driven Norteño dance music as we -- my husband, Tom, our dog, Izzie, and I -- swung onto the Tijuana-Ensenada toll road. Customs was, as usual, a relaxed exercise in bureaucracy, involving much chatter about the beauty of our destination, Todos Santos, some 950 miles south. Our first goal was to be in the fishing town of San Quintín, 200 miles south, by midafternoon.
The road followed the sweep of the coast with sheer cliffs dropping down to transparent blue water. In the distance, volcanic peaks disappeared in the clouds. Offshore shrimpers dotted the horizon.
At Ensanada, Mexico the road became two lanes. Axle-busting speed bumps slowed us in small towns, but we coasted through the drug checkpoints, the soldiers more interested in searching northbound traffic. In the fertile farm region we watched men and women, their heads shrouded in bandannas, trudging between rows of asparagus, strawberries, nopales (edible cactus) and then grapes. A cowboy galloped by.
San Quintín's harbor sits in the curve of a small bay where fishing boats and the Mexican navy tie up. The Old Mill, a low-rise inn, looks out across the bay and a spit of land to the Pacific. My husband rigged his spinning rod and walked across the Old Mill's picnic area to the nearby sea wall.
As he stood casting from the pier, the crew of the patrol boat laughed when he drew up seaweed. Five young boys gathered to offer advice until Tom handed his rod to one delighted bare-chested boy. The others jumped into the receding tide to gather crabs with their hands.
We retired to the veranda of Motel Carlos next to the Old Mill for a sunset beer, then, taking the advice of Nancy Harer, the Old Mill's proprietor, drove three miles to Los Jardines, a restaurant set in palms and greenery. At the bar, a pair of men sat head to head playing guitars and singing rancheras, sad ballads of lost loves and dreams. The Super Bowl was in its final quarter on the television set at the opposite end of the dining room. A table of young local people cheered the singers. In between, we ordered Pismo clams, fresh from the bay, and the day's catch -- mackerel -- grilled in a mango sauce.
The next morning, when we walked into Mama Espinosa's restaurant in El Rosario, some 40 miles south, Rollie Espinosa was stoking the potbellied stove. ''Welcome back, welcome,'' she boomed, then asked after our daughter, who'd been on our first drive south in 1996 and is now a graduate student in New York. She filled our cups with strong Mexican coffee. A grizzled beekeeper came in laden with jars of wild honey. I coughed and he zipped to my side with a dripping tablespoonful.
With assurances from Rollie that the washes to the south were clear, we continued across deep green valleys. A series of dangerous curves carried us into high desert, a land of giant cardón cactus, Dr. Seussian cirio cactus, fat-trunked elephant trees, VW-van-sized boulders, and massive lava flows. We'd arrived in the village of Cataviña, a small settlement -- a few houses, truck stop restaurants and a hotel -- that is a photographers' mecca. Cataviña is a good place to gas up and eat before the three-hour drive to Guerrero Negro.
A dusty town, Guerrero Negro is dependent on a salt-extracting business and tourists who come from January to March to see the calving Pacific gray whales in nearby Scammon's Lagoon. We'd joined a whale-watching trip here in 1999, but this year we continued across the Vizcaíno Desert, now a Unesco Biosphere Reserve of 6.2 million acres. Home to myriad species, including the endangered pronghorn antelope and the gray whales at Bahía San Ignacio, the Vizcaíno Reserve was saved in 2001 from expansion of the saltworks by an international environmental outcry.
The town of San Ignacio is a mountain oasis. The much photographed 200-year-old Misión San Ignacio dominates one end of the tree-shaded plaza. At the opposite end is the office of Kuyima, an eco-tourism organization, with which we made arrangements to camp and whale-watch at the bay. Around the corner is the restored 100-year-old adobe house, now a bed-and-breakfast, Casa Elvira, where we usually stop for a night.
We bounced across the washboarded 36-mile gravel road for two hours to arrive at Bahía San Ignacio for a sunset punctuated by the splashing and blowing of cavorting whales. That night, around family-style tables in Kuyima's palapa restaurant, we listened to stories of the day's whale watching.
The next day we raced in 45 minutes to the whale-watching zone across the lagoon in a broad-beamed 20-foot panga with an outboard motor. Once there, the panga drivers cut their motors and waited; they may not chase whales. Within minutes, mothers and calves surrounded us, surfacing and rolling over next to our pangas.
We'd seen whales in other Baja lagoons, but nothing compared to these, swimming next to our pangas, surfacing on both sides. A day later we took the steep-curving 45 miles from San Ignacio down to Santa Rosalia, aptly named the Devil's Grade. With Las Tres Vírgenes volcanoes on one side and ever enlarging glimpses of the Sea of Cortez around each hairpin curve, we continued to the small town of Mulegé.
Mulegé, its houses brightened with bougainvillea, nestles in a verdant river valley at the top of Bahía Concepción. One purpose for stopping here was to rephotograph the old hand-cut stone-walled mission on the hill overlooking the town.
Our infatuation with Mulegé was oddly furthered by a robbery and its outcome. We'd checked into the family-run Hotel Hacienda, a two-story colonial-style building set around a swimming pool and flower-filled courtyard. We showered off road dust and went out to stroll around town with Izzie. We returned to a smashed window and a cleaned-out car. The hotel staff flew into action. Detective Norberto Márquez of the local police, dressed in T-shirt and jeans, arrived, all business. He radioed north and south for roadblocks, and less than two hours later knocked on our door holding a pair of our ski gloves and a Ry Cooder cassette. Another hour later, the accused robbers sat on a dirt floor in an open cell and we sorted through a stack of stolen goods to identify ours.
We celebrated with our favorite Mulegé meal of barbecued quail at Restaurante Los Equipales. Settled into the comfortable wood-and-leather chairs by candlelight, we planned the next day's 300-mile drive to La Paz.
Every turn in the cliff-hanging road south revealed another white-sand beach and camping site. South of Baja's colonial capital, Loreto, the first European settlement in the Californias (1697), the road climbed the eastern escarpment of the sierra and rolled out across an arid plain toward La Paz. A giant monument depicting a pair of doves marked the entrance to the city, first discovered by emissaries of Hernán Cortez in 1535. Sunsets seem to bring half the population to walk the malecón along the bay or sit at outdoor restaurants along Paseo Obregón.
With a population of around 200,000, La Paz is a quietly cosmopolitan small city with a rich history. In the 16th century, fortune seekers came for the pearls. They were followed by missionaries, then pirates who preyed on Spanish trading galleons. The city became the capital of the state of Baja California Sur in 1829, emerging in this century as a free port and fishing destination.
At Hotel Lorimar, a charming budget hotel two blocks off the malecón with an interior court full of birds and greenery, we asked after Chuco, a large macaw that used to roam the hallways trying to join unsuspecting guests in their showers. He'd been removed to a restaurant named for him. ''Not a minute too soon,'' remarked the affable gentleman at the desk.
One hot afternoon we walked through tree-lined commercial and residential streets to the three-story Museo de Anthropología on Calles 5 de Mayo and Altamirano. The museum is crammed with artifacts and fossils from pre-colonial times on, including rock paintings and dioramas of life at various periods of Baja history.
An hour's drive south is the partly paved cut-off to Cabo Pulmo on the east cape. Not much more than a short string of houses and a few dive shops paralleling a magnificent white beach, it was made a National Marine Sanctuary in 1995, to preserve the northernmost living coral reef in North America.
Credit goes to a coalition of Mexicans and expatriates led by Pepe Murietta, a professional diver, scientists from the University of La Paz, and restaurant owners Nancy and Libby Hyzer, mother and daughter transplants from Chicago. During a day of snorkeling at a secluded beach, we learned from Pepe of the struggle to convince local fishermen that a park with restrictions would mean sustainable fishing.
''Sometimes you have to brush away the fish even to see the reef,'' Nancy Hyzer said, as she watched over guests in her much enlarged restaurant.
Directly across the peninsula from Cabo Pulmo, Todos Santos straddles the Tropic of Cancer. When we arrived six years ago to body-surf and camp on the 10-mile beach at Los Cerritos south of town, we were immediately captivated by this burgeoning art community with an interesting mix of old Mexican families, farmers and ranchers, and international artists. There are not yet enough expatriates to distract from the town's essentially Mexican atmosphere.
We time our returns to the annual Festival del Arte, scheduled for Feb. 1 to 8 next year. Once again we spent days picnicking and body-surfing at Los Cerritos. Late afternoons, we hiked to other beaches to watch the gray whales roll in the surf, took in the spectacular fishing boat landings at Punta Lobos, explored Pescadero, an organic gardening and farming community, and the nearby botanical cactus gardens. Daily we wandered through the community's dozen-plus art galleries.
Evenings we tried various restaurants, ranging from the pricey Santa Fé to family-run establishments like Miguel's, where I became hooked on chiles rellenos,and Mariscos Mi Costa, where we found an outstanding seafood soup.
At night we watched performances, either in the plaza in front of the Misión del Pilar or in the adjacent Teatro Márquez de León. After a few desultory semipro ballet presentations, we were riveted by the flamboyant flamenco dancers and a 20-guitar men's chorus from La Paz. The final Saturday night, we danced in the plaza along with ranchers and fishermen, local gentry and resident artists, expatriates and a few fellow wanderers before heading back to the winding road home.
What to take on the drive (a camera and lots of water), where to eat and stay
The Transpeninsular Highway is paved along its entire length, and any vehicle in moderately good shape can make the drive safely. Some side roads are suitable only for high clearance and four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Do not drive at night. While there have been highway robberies, the real danger is the cattle that come onto the pavement for warmth. There are no highway lights.
Carry plenty of drinking water, a tow rope and extra fan belts, and be sure your brakes are in good condition.
Camping sites are plentiful the length of the peninsula; camping solo is not recommended. The Moon Travel Guide, Baja Handbook, is a good source of information about the peninsula.
Food and Lodging Mexico Hotels
SAN QUINTÍN. The Old Mill is on the water three miles west of the center of town on a well-marked dirt road. The view of the bay is terrific; the 31 simple rooms, all with private bath, range from doubles to suites for six.. The one- and two-story wood-and-brick buildings encircle an open courtyard that leads to the bay. Rooms range from $30 to $80 a night, at 10 pesos to the dollar.
Restaurante Los Jardines, about five miles south of the Old Mill, is a family restaurant with full bar and excellent food, especially seafood. A Pismo clam dinner costs about $6 a person, not including drinks. Ask at the Old Mill or in San Quintín for road directions. No telephone.
SAN IGNACIO. Casa Elvira, a converted 100-year-old adobe house, has two basic rooms ($25) with shared bath and kitchen facilities and three two-bedroom suites available for $100 a night with private bath and kitchen facilities, or the entire five-bedroom house can be reserved for $300 a night.
MULEGÉ. Hotel Hacienda, Francisco Madero 3, is a family-run hotel with 23 simple doubles ($30) with private bath and air-conditioning.
Restaurante Los Equipales on Calle Moctezuma, furnished with leather and wood, serves memorable barbecued quail dinners for $8 a person, without drinks, as well as seafood.
LA PAZ. Hotels, from luxury to bare bones, abound in La Paz.
Hotel Lorimar, where we stayed, is an older, low-key and friendly two-story hotel with an interior garden courtyard, just a block off the waterfront. Its 20 plain doubles range from $30 to $45.
The more luxurious Concha Beach Resort, has 154 modern rooms with ocean views, air-conditioning, private baths and prices ranging from $95 for standard doubles to $259 for three-bedroom condos in the building next door.
La Terraza, the restaurant at the venerable Hotel La Perla, overlooks the bay, with an Old World style. A bacon-and-egg breakfast costs about $5. Lunches and dinners feature Mexican favorites, fruit smoothies and grilled fresh fish. Prices range upward from $6 without drinks.
CABO PULMO. Nancy's Restaurant, in the center of town, also a two-room thatched-roof B&B ($50 a room), attracts foodies from Los Cabos. Entrées include chicken enchiladas ($6) and fresh shrimp ($16).
Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort, solar-powered colony of a dozen simple beach cottages with private baths. Rates range from $50 for a double to $200 for a ranch-style house with two to four bedrooms.
TODOS SANTOS. An excellent source for hotels and restaurants is El Calendario
Cabañas Quiñones, overlooking the town and the ocean, has six rustic thatched cottages with kitchens, with private baths in bathhouses behind each cottage; $20 a night, $200 a month.
Hotel Misión del Pilar, a Moorish-style two-story building at the corner of Colegio Militar and Hidalgo, has large comfortable rooms with private bath and sitting room for $35.
The Todos Santos Inn, on Calle Legaspi, is a restored 19th-century adobe, furnished with antiques and oriental rugs, high-ceilinged rooms and two suites, all with private baths. Doubles start at $95.
Miguel's, on Calles Rango and Delgado, and Mariscos Mi Costa, on Colegio Militar near Ocampo, are palapa restaurants serving outstanding homemade fresh fish, chiles rellenos and, at Mariscos, delicious seafood soup. Recent dinners at both cost less than $35 for four people, including beer. The Santa Fé, a historic adobe off the central plaza, serves Northern Italian specialties using local fresh ingredients, served indoors and on patios. A rather elaborate seafood dinner recently cost about $60 a person with wine. By SaraGay Dammann