South of Ensenada, the topography around Hwy-1 shifts from suburban sprawl to farmland and then into curvy, hilly passes that eventually drop into the Santo Tomás valley. From here it’s around 1375km to La Paz, a journey which can take twenty hours direct or preferably several days, taking in the entrancing landscapes and small towns along the way – you’ll see far fewer tourists on this stretch of the Transpeninsular Highway.Read More
Leaving Guerrero Negro, the highway heads 142km inland for the hottest, driest stage of the journey, across the Desierto Vizcaíno. In the midst of this landscape, San Ignacio’s appeal is immediate even from a distance. Gone are the dust and concrete that define the peninsula, replaced by green palms and a cool breeze; it’s an oasis any desert traveller would hope for, and another excellent base for whale-watching and cave-painting tours.
The settlement was founded by the Jesuits in 1728, but the area had long been populated by the indigenous Cochimí, attracted by the tiny stream, the only fresh water for hundreds of miles. Underneath the surfaced road between the highway and town is the small dam that the settlers built to form the lagoon that still sustains the town’s agricultural economy, mostly based on the Mediterranean staples of dates, figs, grapes, olives, limes and oranges. Early missionaries were responsible, too, for the attractive palm trees that give the town its character.
In town, the central Plaza Ecoturismo, shaded by six huge Indian laurel trees, plays hosts to concerts, festivals and children’s soccer games, and is dominated by Misión San Ignacio de Kadakaamán (usually open during services only) a gorgeous church constructed of lava-block walls – carved out of the output from Volcan las Tres Virgenes to the east – over one metre thick. Completed in 1786, it’s probably the best example of colonial architecture in the whole of Baja California. The left wing of the mission now houses the exquisite Museo de Pinturas Rupestres de San Ignacio, which contains photos and cave art exhibits, with a focus on the nearby Sierra de San Francisco (Spanish-only captions).
There is good diving and fishing immediately around Mulegé, but the best beaches are between 10km and 50km south of town along the shore of Bahía Concepción, for once easily accessible from Hwy-1 – the drive down to Loreto along this stretch of road is truly spectacular. The bay ranges from 3km to 6.5km wide, is 48km long and is enclosed on three sides and dotted with islands. The blue-green waters, tranquil bays and white-sand beaches are gorgeous and relatively undeveloped – though you will at times find teams of RVs lining the waters – and it’s a good place to break your journey for a day or so before travelling south. As far as kayaking goes, there are few places better than Bahía Concepción.
The best stretches of sand include Playa Punta Arena, at Hwy-1 km 118, 2km along a dirt road, where there should be some basic palapa shelters to rent (around M$80). In 2008 arsonists torched most of the units on the beach, allegedly to make way for a private buyer – ask in Mulegé for the latest situation. Playa Santispac, some 5km further on, is right on the highway – despite the early stages of development and occasional crowds of RVs, it still has plenty of room to camp (M$60) and enough life to make staying here longer-term a realistic option (toilets, showers, basic groceries), though there are free open palapas to hang out under during the day if you just want to swim. Stop at Ana’s for cheap fish tacos and potent Bloody Marys; you can also rent kayaks (M$250–350/day) and snorkelling gear (M$100/day). Posada Concepción, just south of Santispac, shows the beginnings of Cabo-style development and has permanent residents; full RV hookups are around M$100. If you follow the road to the right from Posada Concepción you’ll pass a bend and 1km thereafter arrive at the rather secluded Playa Escondida. Few trailers can make it over the hump, so the campground is more hospitable to tent campers (M$60). It is rustic (cold showers and outhouses) and there are no services. Escondida Kayak Rental (Dec–April daily 7am–7pm) has kayaks to hire for M$300/day and snorkelling gear for M$150/day.
Further south there are few facilities for anything other than camping: Playa El Coyote and Playa El Requesón, another couple of popular, bone-white beaches, are the last and the best opportunities for this (M$60 for each). Note that there’s no fresh water (pit toilets and palapas only) available at either, but locals drop by in the early morning and afternoon selling everything from water to fresh shrimps. One exception to the camping rule is Hotel San Buenaventura at km 94.5 (t615/155-6126, wwww.hotelsanbuenaventura.com; M$1200–1599), a small resort in between Coyote and Requesón with a campground (M$250) and restaurant. The motel-type rooms have air-conditioning and ceiling fans. The beach here is clean but gravelly.
Another popular escape for fishing and diving enthusiasts, Loreto is enjoying something of a renaissance. Some 138km down the coast from Mulegé, this was the site of the earliest permanent settlement in the Californias, founded in 1697 by Juan María Salvatierra as the first Jesuit mission to the region. Loreto served as the administrative capital of the entire California territory until a devastating hurricane struck in 1829 and La Paz took on the role. Eight kilometres south of town, the new “town” of Nopoló has evolved into the largely expat community of Loreto Bay, the largest residential development by a foreign builder in Mexico. Construction was placed on hold in 2009, in part due to the US recession, but once a new buyer is found it should provide a massive economic boost to the entire region (and support for the town through the Loreto Bay Foundation). Critics, however, claim that the project threatens to overwhelm the already limited water supply and Loreto’s delicate natural assets: Mexico’s largest marine park, Parque Nacional Bahía de Loreto, lies just offshore, while the weathered landscapes of the Sierra de la Giganta provide a stunning backdrop.
Ecotourism in Baja California Sur
Ecotourism in Baja California Sur
With so many natural sights, ecotourism has become big business in Baja California Sur, which stretches from Guerrero Negro nearly 1000km south to Cabo San Lucas. The plankton-rich waters that surround the peninsula support an amazingly diverse aquatic culture and a host of watersports possibilities, while inland, the five mountain ranges that constitute the backbone of the peninsula contain the petroglyphs of some of the region’s first inhabitants.
One of the most magical sights in this part of the world is the annual grey whale migration: from December to April, thousands of grey whales travel some 10,000km to mate and breed in the warm-water lagoons of Baja California. There are three main “sanctuaries” where you can see them. Most whales congregate in Ojo de Liebre, just off Guerrero Negro, where tours are plentiful and cost around M$700 for transport to the lagoon, four hours of boat travel and lunch. Many people, though, prefer the lagoon near San Ignacio, 150km south; where the town itself is a further attraction, as are the local birds, caves and mission church. The least-visited of the three sanctuaries is the more isolated Bahía Magdalena, 140km south of Loreto and 216km north of La Paz, located near the far less interesting town of Ciudad Constitución. Most southern towns offer whale-watching tours as well, but keep in mind that these charge exorbitant prices for transport to the west coast, where they are likely to take you to one of the sanctuaries. If you can’t make a boat trip, you can sometimes spy whales from the shore: Todos Santos and the western side of Cabo San Lucas are particularly good for this.
Baja California is home to some of the most bewitching and thought-provoking cave art in the world – the Sierra de San Francisco, between Bahía de los Angeles and Loreto, was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1993 because of five hundred particularly vivid rock-art sites contained within it. Not much is known about the provenance of these designs; largely ignored until the 1960s, when an amateur archeologist named Harry Crosby started exploring them, it’s really been within the last fifty years that the paintings have been subjected to examination. A 2003 study backed by the National Geographic Society concluded that the designs in the Sierra de San Francisco region were about 7500 years old – pre-dating any other known Mexican society. In general, the cave paintings are extremely hard to visit, reachable only by tracks or mule paths and almost impossible to find without a guide (which is also a legal requirement for most visits). Many of the famed paintings are 45km north of San Ignacio, so most people choose that town as their base for the excursion. Tours are also a good option from Guerrero Negro in the north, and Mulegé in the south; operators are listed with the relevant entries. Tours generally last anywhere from five hours to several days; a five-hour tour will cost M$400–900 per person, depending on the length of your hike and the transport required for the tour. Having your own transport will usually cut these costs in half.
The waters around Baja are so picturesque and rich in marine life that nearly everyone will be drawn to try their hand at sea kayaking, diving or fishing. For kayaking, the first real spot for even a novice to put in would be Mulegé. The standard open-top kayaks go for about M$500 per day; wet suit and fins are another M$60 or so. Loreto and La Paz are also phenomenal options for sea kayaking. Trips to Isla del Carmen off Loreto and to Isla Espíritu Santo off La Paz pose more extended challenges and attract their share of experienced kayakers – see the relevant entries for details.
The most popular diving areas in the south are off the coast of Mulegé and Bahía Concepción, Loreto, La Paz and Los Cabos. In the waters off San José del Cabo, the giant reef known as Cabo Pulmo offers the chance to dive amidst schools of hammerheads, whale sharks, tunas and sea lions; many claim it to be the peninsula’s best diving spot. From August to November you’ll find the ideal combination of water clarity and warmth. Diving is not cheap, though, and having your own gear will cut costs in half. The average two-tank all-inclusive outing will cost you M$800–1000, and the prices generally increase the closer to Los Cabos you choose to dive.
Fishing in Baja can be spectacular, especially so in the south. The favourite holes have always been near La Paz and around Cabo San Lucas, the small fishing village of La Playita, just east of San José del Cabo, and the rest of the East Cape, where the nearby Gordo Banks seamount produces more marlin, tuna, wahoo, sailfish and dorado than anywhere else in Mexico. Fishing charters offer one of two services: either less formal fishing from a panga that can carry up to three anglers, or the larger marina-based fleets with boats that can accommodate up to six. Pangas charge anywhere from M$1500 to M$2000 for six hours, the larger boats upwards of M$5000, including food, drinks and gratuity.
Santa Rosalía’s copper mines
Santa Rosalía’s copper mines
While walking in the hills around Santa Rosalía in 1868, legend has it that one José Villavicencio chanced upon a boleo, a blue-green globule of rock that proved to be just a taster of a mineral vein containing more than twenty percent copper. By 1880, the wealth of the small-scale mining concessions came to the notice of the Rothschilds, who provided financing for the French Compagnie du Boléo (or “El Boleo”) to buy the rights and found a massive extraction and smelting operation in 1885. Six hundred kilometres of tunnels were dug, a foundry was shipped out from Europe, and a new wharf built to transport the smelted ore north to Washington State for refining. Ships returned with lumber for the construction of a new town, laid out with houses built to a standard commensurate with their occupier’s status within the company. Water was piped from the Santa Agueda oasis 15km away, and labour was brought in: Yaqui from Sonora as well as two thousand Chinese and Japanese who supposedly found that Baja was too arid to grow rice and soon headed off to the Mexican mainland. By 1954, falling profits from the nearly spent mines forced the French to sell the pits and smelter to the Mexican government who, though the mines were eventually left idle, continued to smelt ore from the mainland until the 1990s. Since 2004, Canadian-owned Baja Mining Corp has been working hard to reopen the mine – despite local cynicism, it expects to start production in 2011.