The Best Places to Explore in Baja in 2013

Daniel gets a fun one--the light was perfect in the afternoon for photos.

San Miguel in Ensenada.

For years many Southern California surfers and ocean lovers have lived for Baja. Upon crossing the border they experienced endless empty beaches, great fishing, friendly people and perfect waves.

Then when things got a little rough in Mexico a few years ago, due to the drug war, many Baja California lovers bid adios to their old friend.

But an interesting thing happened during the years that American tourists abandoned Lower California. Rather than sit idly by waiting for tourists to show up, the peninsula’s new generation of entrepreneurs reinvented Baja. They developed a new cuisine, built beautiful new eco-resorts and boutique hotels, and produced fine wines.

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The peninsula got a lot safer as well. Highways have been improved. The increased presence of the police and the military has made travel safer.

Over the holidays my sons and I spent a few mornings and afternoons south of the the border carrying out surgical surf strikes during the recent magical run of winter swells. We scored big and never had a single problem. Lots of smiles, great food, and cool, clean, empty waves.

So here are a few of the hottest spots to sample in our sun-kissed neighbor to the south.

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Northern Baja Cuisine and Wine County: Start off with a late lunch at Javier Plascencia’s gastronomic palace in Tijuana, Mision 19. Then head south and stop for a quick sunset surf before you check into one of the boutique hotels in the Valle de Guadalupe such as the Grupo Habita eco-bungalows or Adobe Guadalupe. For dinner check out the amazingly tasty Corazon de Tierra. The next day, after sampling waves at San Miguel or 3M’s, catch a late breakfast or  lunch at either Boules or Muelle 3. After a second surf session check out the wine, cocktails and dinner at the award winning Manzanilla.

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Whale Watching in San Ignacio Lagoon: The world’s best whale-watching awaits you in this stark and pristine desert lagoon fringed by mangroves, bobcats and coyotes. Filled with more than 200 gray whales during the height of the whale season in February and early March, this is the best place in the world to encounter a friendly whale.

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Whales, Islands and Missions in Loreto and Magdalena Bay: Catch a short flight to the beautiful mission town of Loreto to catch up with old Baja. Tour the amazing azure islands of Loreto Bay National Park, be inspired by the grandeur of Mision San Javier, and take a day trip to Magdalena Bay’s Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateos for a day of whale watching and wandering the dunes of the barrier islands.

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East Cape: Fill up on organic goodies and beautiful arts and crafts at the San Jose del Cabo Organic Market and then head out east and discover miles of empty white-sand beaches. Explore the coral reef and schools of fish at Cabo Pulmo National Park, one of North America’s best dive spots. If you’re lucky you’ll catch an early season south swell, but during the winter the East Cape is tranquility and heaven. Be sure to catch the sunset over cocktails and dinner at the iconic Crossroads Country Club at Vinorama, where a boutique hotel will open soon.

Whale shark.  Photo courtesy of Ralph Lee Hopkins.

Whale shark on the East Cape. Photo courtesy of Ralph Lee Hopkins.

Todos Santos: Officially the hottest, hippest, and coolest little resort town in Baja. Todos Santos is an old school Baja town remade as a trendy little village with great hotels, excellent food and a laid back vibe. My wife Emily and I spent one of the best years of our life living in Todos Santos back in the mid 1990s, so I love to visit and hang out with friends, surf pristine warm-water waves and eat tasty, healthy food.

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So what are you waiting for? Baja is better than ever. Explore it now while the going is good!

Around the Cape

Whale shark. Photo courtesy of Ralph Lee Hopkins.

I caught my first glimpse of the Sea of Cortez as I rounded the farming and fishing village of La Ribera, on Baja’s East Cape.  The sea was turquoise.

A pod of humpbacks breached in the distance.

My guide was Cecilia Fischer, a Baja native who works with me as the WiLDCOAST Cape Region Coordinator.

“We’re almost to Cabo Pulmo,” said Cecilia as we left the pavement in my rented Jeep, and headed down a rutted dirt road to the tiny fishing village that proudly abuts the only coral reef in the Sea of Cortez.

East Cape in Baja. Photo courtesy of A.J. Schneller and Wildcoast.

I was in southern Baja to give a talk to the residents of Cabo Pulmo and the Cape Region to update them on our efforts to conserve the reef, a marine protected area, and the coastline that surrounds it.

A Spanish company, Hansa Urbana, has proposed building a new city larger than Cancun in the empty desert just next to Cabo Pulmo National Park.

If the project is built out, conservation biologists and marine ecologists fear the reef will not sustain the impacts that are sure to come.

We arrived in the ramshackle hamlet of Cabo Pulmo and made our way to the Cabo Pulmo Resort.

“I first came here years ago,” said Cole, the operator of the Resort’s Coral Reef Restaurant. “The reef was dead and the fish were gone. But now, diving the reef is incredible.”

Back in 1999, local fishermen and the Mexican government brokered a deal to ban all fishing around the reef. The fishermen switched from harvesting the locally dwindling supply of fish to taking tourists to dive the reef.

More than ten years later, researchers from Scripps announced the results of their decade long monitoring project in Cabo Pulmo.

The population of fish or “biomass” increased 460%.

Cabo Pulmo, they declared was “the world’s most robust marine reserve.”

“We never used to see whale sharks here,” said Cole. “Now this is one of the few places in the Sea of Cortez we can dive with them.”

Marine biologists and conservationists from around the world now visit Cabo Pulmo to learn about how Mexican fishermen saved the reef and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Last fall, Sylvia Earle, the renowned ocean explorer came to Cabo Pulmo to dive and named the 18,000-acre Cabo Pulmo National Park a “Hope Spot.”

After meeting with the friendly residents of Cabo Pulmo, Cecilia and I returned to San Jose del Cabo. The sprawling city is a world apart from the desert solitude and emerald brilliance of the East Cape.

The next morning I made my way through the bustle and traffic of Los Cabos on my way Todos Santos. My wife Emily and I lived in he artsy and historic village on the Pacific Coast 18 years earlier while we were finishing up writing up our dissertations on Baja’s gray whales and the fishing folk who make their living from whalewatching.

Todos Santos is still one of my favorite towns in Baja with great food, historic buildings, excellent surf and art galleries.

I caught a few waves at a beach south of town. The surf was 3-4’, the water was 70 degrees.

On the outskirts of Todos Santos I met up with Jim Pickell, the CEO of Baja.com who has an office in a renovated historic brick building. “Baja is back,” said Jim. “Tourism is up and people are excited to come to Baja and rediscover the peninsula.”

At the Café La Esquina in Todos Santos, an airy and friendly neighborhood hangout on the west side of town I ordered a veggie panini and a carrot-beet-spinach-apple smoothie from Paula Angeloni, a local surfer.

“I came Todos Santos to surf,” said Paula, who is originally from Uruguay and moved to Mexico to study marine biology in La Paz. “But now I’m raising my daughter here.”

That evening I have dinner at the La Dolce restaurant in San Jose del Cabo. Ramiro Rivas, the owner and native of Mexico City moved to Baja more than 11 years ago.

When Ramiro is not working at his lovely Italian restaurant just off the plaza in San Jose, he loves to visit Cabo Pulmo.  “I love Cabo Pulmo,” he said. “It is so beautiful.”

Over the next couple of days I greeted the sunrise each morning while surfing Costa Azul. The waves were small but the water was warm and crystal clear.

At the San Jose del Cabo Farmer’s Market, I ate the best pizza in Baja and was delighted with the quesadilla like vampiros stuffed with portabella mushrooms.

I bought beautiful abalone jewelry for Emily from Victor de la Vega. Besides making unique and original jewelry, Victor transforms driftwood into unique art.

“The farmer’s market started out pretty unofficially,” said Jim Tolbert of Baja Books and Maps who hosts a stall in the market each Saturday with his wife Judy. “But now we’re a non-profit. Thousands of people come here each week during the season.”

On my last evening, Cecilia and I drove out to the East Cape again. Our destination was the Crossroads County Club at Vinorama. Joan Hafenecker, the owner has created an impeccable oasis with a incredible view of the coast and savory food.

After giving a talk to a collection of local residents and visitors from Los Cabos, I settled down to a dinner of Asian stir-fry with pasta. When an American celebrity strolled in with his wife, no one even batted an eye.

We were too busy watching the sunset, looking for humpbacks, and absorbing the stars as they settled into Baja’s never ending nighttime sky.

Another perfect evening on the Cape.

The Threat to Baja’s Underwater Rainforest

My friends and colleagues Homero Aridjis and Roberty Kennedy Jr. wrote this op-ed in the San Diego Union-Tribune on the need to preserve Cabo Pulmo.

By Robert F. Kennedy Jr. & Homero Aridjis

Coral reefs, often called rain forests of the sea, shelter a quarter of all marine fish. In February, the most detailed scientific assessment ever undertaken of these spectacular ecosystems revealed that fully 75 percent are under threat – the most immediate being local pressures for coastal development.

Cabo Pulmo Bay in Baja California – home to one of these underwater “rain forests” – is facing one of those threats. Among only three living coral reefs in North America, it lies 40 miles north of San Jose del Cabo, on the eastern cape of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. John Steinbeck described this 20,000-year-old reef as filled with “teeming fauna” displaying “electric” colors. When decades of overfishing threatened the reef’s existence, the local community convinced the Mexican government in 1995 to protect it by declaring the area a 17,560-acre National Marine Park. In 2005, the reef became a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Fishing was banned inside the park, and today Cabo Pulmo Reef’s recovery is considered a prime example of marine conservation in the Americas. It provides refuge for 225 of the 875 fish species found in the Sea of Cortez, including marlin, manta rays, giant squid and several kinds of sharks. Whales, dolphins, sea lions and five of the world’s seven species of endangered sea turtles frequent its waters. Indeed, the coral reef hosts the highest concentration of ocean life within this 700-mile long arm of the Pacific Ocean that separates Baja California from the Mexican mainland. Ecotourism (diving, snorkeling, whale watching) is thriving among the 150 residents of the coastal town surrounding this spectacular marine park.

But now Hansa Baja Investments, a Mexican subsidiary of the Spain-based real estate development firm Hansa Urbana, plans to build a massive resort complex directly north of the National Marine Park. The developer has proposed what amounts to a sprawling new city on the scale of Cancún: 10,000 acres including 30,000 hotel rooms and residential housing units, at least two golf courses, 2 million square feet of office and retail space, a 490-boat marina and a private jet port.

The construction of the Cabo Cortés project would bring in close to 40,000 workers and their families. This fragile region of desert, dirt roads and traditional small communities would be overwhelmed. Cabo Pulmo Reef would die, killed by saline effluents from the planned desalination plant, chemical fertilizers whose runoff causes eutrophication, and the city’s pollution flowing south on ocean coastal currents straight toward the reef.

In early March, Mexico’s secretariat of the environment and natural resources gave the go-ahead for much of Hansa Urbana’s proposal: not only the marina and land developments, but also a 10.5-mile-long aqueduct and 324 acres of roads and highways. The energy-intensive desalination plant – which would discharge 500 liters per second of salt water – and a sewage treatment plant to deal with an expected 39,000 tons a day of solid waste once Cabo Cortés is going full tilt are not yet authorized, but it is considered only a matter of time, as is permission for the pending jetties and breakwaters.

The government’s approval came despite the company’s woefully inadequate environmental impact statement, which claimed that pollution from the development wouldn’t affect the reef because ocean currents flow only from south to north, away from the reef. Recent studies show the area’s currents move in multiple directions, largely depending upon the season.

In a region of water scarcity, Hansa has been granted a concession of 4.5 million cubic meters per year, meaning it will suck dry the Santiago aquifer, depriving the local population of resources it has depended on for hundreds of years.

In authorizing the deal, the government is violating its own laws, disregarding the rules governing environmental impact assessments in Mexico and ignoring its zoning plan for the entire region of Los Cabos.

It is up to the Mexican government to stand by its 1995 decision to protect this flourishing and irreplaceable marine nursery. The government must cancel its authorization of the Cabo Cortés development. Only then can the Cabo Pulmo coral reef remain a stellar example of ocean conservation and sustainable ecotourism. For Cabo Pulmo and its people, it is wreck or rectify. How does Mexican President Felipe Calderón want to be remembered?

Kennedy is a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance. Aridjis, a poet and novelist, is the former Mexican ambassador to UNESCO and founder of the Grupo de los Cien environmental organization.

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