Desolate, dry, harsh, and unforgiving are all ways to describe the nearly 1,250-kilometre long finger of land that hangs off the west coast of California. Mexico’s Baja California is indeed rough and rugged, yet rising out of this abrasive landscape are things of ridiculous beauty and unexpected sophistication.
The inhospitable desert sits in juxtaposition to life thriving despite the odds: sparkling turquoise bays full of marine life, towering brilliant green cacti, and hidden oases of palm trees. Deep dark storm clouds pour buckets of rain over otherwise barren terrain and brilliant yellow wildflowers pop up across the desert. In small towns, friendly locals lift the veil of poverty to share the songs of the mariachis and a taste of tequila. An oppressive and impassable border creates an atmosphere for a culinary revolution.
Travelling in Baja is 100% about the journey rather than the destination. Throughout a trip to Mexico’s northern and westernmost state, you come to expect the unexpected. Unforeseen bounty hides in what appears to be the scarcest of circumstances. From the border town of Tijuana to “Cabo,” or the land’s end, Baja’s magic is waiting for the discerning traveller to come and find it.
Tijuana: Despite the Wall, Life Flourishes
Whether you walk or drive across, For most visitors, a journey to the Northern half of Baja California begins at one of the busiest and most fortified borders in the world. The wall between America and Mexico looms larger than life despite covering an expanse of land not much wider than a fútbol field. On the Mexican side, you instantly know you’re in another country by the sight of colourful hand-painted signs, the smell of street tacos, and the voices of men in cowboy hats offering unsolicited taxis.
You’re officially in Tijuana, or “TJ” for short, a place that has had a reputation for being a full-strength, no-holds-barred adult Disneyland ever since filling a need during prohibition. Today, Tijuana’s main drag, Avenida Revolución, is much safer and G-rated than in the past. Yet, the “no rules” attitude that has attracted so many Americans over the years lives on amongst Baja chefs and restaurateurs.
Take Javier Plascencia, for example. His upscale flagship restaurant, Mision 19, arrived in TJ at a time when no one was doing fine dining in the city. He took the rule book and threw it out the window by occupying a modern office building in a part of the city away from the main tourist haunts. With avant-garde art and in-your-face yet sophisticated dishes like beef tongue with blood-sausage vinaigrette and sea urchin soup with poblano chillies, Mission 19 feels more New York than Tijuana.
For most, Tijuana is where you come for taco stands and hole-in-the-wall joints featuring Mexican dishes like birria (spicy goat stew), carnitas, and Baja fish tacos. These days, it’s not only Baja food you’ll find on the street. TJ has become a melting pot of all the people who get stuck there in their quest for the American dream. Rules may stop them from crossing the border, but Tijuana eschews convention. That’s why you’re headed to Telefonica for lunch. Places like Telefonica, a gastro-park, and Plaza Fiesta, a craft beer garden, are so popular because they don’t follow the rules. A Mex-inspired ramen truck saddles up next to a taco stand selling cauliflower mole. Anything goes and it all tastes amazing.
The Valle De Guadalupe: Sophistication, Mexico Style
From Tijuana, head out west and make your way down the coast. You can make out tiny surfers in the ocean as you pass a giant statue of Jesus Christ with welcoming, outstretched arms. He seems to say, ‘Bienvenidos a Baja,’ (welcome to Baja) to all who drive by.
Eventually you turn inland towards the Valle de Guadalupe, the very valley where Spanish friars made the first Mexican wine in the 18th century. In order to do Baja Ruta de Vino (wine route) properly, you should check into your hotel early and hire a driver for the day.
After you’ve settled into your eco-loft at Encuentro Guadalupe, gather the troops and head off for a day of wine tasting in the Valle. As far as the eye can see, the dusty terrain is punctuated by vineyards, dirt roads, and simple signage indicating that somewhere off in the distance there’s wine and food. Although you’re a half an hour from ocean, your driver tells you to look for boats. The best kind of boats; boats filled with wine.
The winemaking and tasting facilities at Vena Cava are constructed entirely from repurposed fishing boats and recycled materials. Inside the cool and cavernous upturned fishing boats, you taste the region’s finest wines starting with a crisp and slightly salty Sauvignon Blanc and moving through Vena Cava’s collection until you taste a show-stopping, full-bodied Tempranillo.
Before the warmth of the Tempranillo sets in, it’s time to get moving to your next stop: Finca La Carrodilla. Once again, you bump down a long unassuming dirt road to an architecturally breathtaking winery hidden in the desert. On the rooftop terrace at Finca La Carrodilla, sweeping views of the mountains and vineyards command your attention. But you must save some focus for the wines and locally made cheese.
Finca La Carrodilla is one of the only wineries in the Valle that uses sustainable and ecological agriculture practices. Luckily René, the winery’s chief entertainer, is your server. While he explains that the Syrah is 100% organic, you enjoy the cheese made at Finca la Carrodilla from the milk of the grass-fed cows who live on the property.
After a short tour of the production area where the grapes are de-stemmed, crushed into giant stainless steel tanks, and fermented without the use of electricity or machinery, you’re ready for the next course: a sunset dinner at Tras Lomita. Tras Lomita is an ethereal outdoor kitchen and dining area surrounded by vineyards. To reach the restaurant, you must trod the earth between the trellised grapevines that once produced the wine served at the restaurant. At your table, you revel in the casually elegant ambience. It’s easy to understand why this is a place where both Mexicans and foreigners linger over dishes like lamb taquitos with mole sauce, BBQ octopus, and raw prawns cooked in black sauce called aguachile for hours. The wine does nothing but cause you to stay longer. Briny, earthy wines pair impeccably with the seafood that has made Baja so famous.
It’s been a long day when you retire to Encuentro Guadalupe. You are grateful for a comfortable bed and sweeping views of the stars in the sky.
The Sea of Cortez: Where the Desert Meets the Sparkling Sea
Onward. After you’ve recuperated from all the wine, it’s time to fly from Tijuana to La Paz. Despite the hustle and bustle of the U.S. border, Baja is still one of the most sparsely populated states in Mexico and nowhere more so than on the coast of the Sea of Cortez. North of La Paz lies countless kilometres of empty coastline only occasionally interrupted by tiny fishing towns, a couple of gringos, or a resort. The lack of action is made up for in the water.
Dubbed, “the aquarium of the world” by Jacques Cousteau, the biodiversity of the Sea Cortez is unparalleled. Its waters are home to no less than 30 different species of dolphins and whales, the greatest variety of these species found anywhere on planet earth. Regardless of which form of aquatic transport you chose Ð paddleboard, kayak, National Geographic cruise, fishing boat or private yacht Ð you will suddenly be surrounded by sea life. But the real reason you’re here is to see the “gentle giants” of the Sea Cortez. During the winter, you can join Cabo Expeditions for a swim alongside the whale sharks who can grow over 12 meters long and weigh over 21,000 kilos.
After your close encounter with the life aquatic, it’s time to head south towards Cabo San Lucas. It’s worth taking the scenic route to Cabo to explore the coastline that meanders along from La Paz to San Jose. The salty Sea of Cortez alternates shades of aquamarine, emerald green and deep dark navy. Quaint fishing villages seem sleepy during the hot midday sun. At one beach you stop for a swim and meet a friendly fisherman selling clams that are eaten out of the shell while they are still alive. Each picturesque beach you pass has the whitest sand and most glittering blue-green water you’ve ever seen until you arrive in San José.
Cabo: The Land’s End
If wet t-shirt contests, boisterous Americans taking tequila shots, and an endless Spring Break atmosphere aren’t your thing, you could write off the whole of Cabo as a glossy, glitzy nightmare. Yet, in true Baja style, those willing to explore are bound to find hidden gems way worth getting your rental car dusty. Beyond the dance clubs, chain restaurants, and mega resorts of Cabo San Lucas are two lesser-known towns that will easily win your heart. So don’t get caught at a timeshare presentation, there’s too much magic at the end of the finger to waste any time.
San José del Cabo: The Classy Sibling
Authenticity, sophistication, and charm are just three of the traits San José del Cabo holds over its twin sibling, Cabo San Lucas. Start by cruising the cobblestone streets full of artisan boutiques, colourful galleries, and delectable restaurants. On Thursday evenings from November to June, it’s an official pastime to check out the San José Art Walk.
When compared to the MTV-style party-hard scene you’d find on the beaches in Cabo San Lucas, San José’s beaches may seem like ghost towns. Retreat to the Cabo Surf Hotel, just out of town, where you can learn to surf or stand up paddle in the gentle waves at the surf spot “Old Man’s” with the Mike Doyle Surf School. More experienced surfers or non-surfers looking for even quieter beaches should take a day trip to Shipwrecks, a desolate but beautiful beach about 40 minutes to the east of San José.
Once sufficiently hungry from surfing or beach-combing, head to Flora Farms, a farm-to-table restaurant set amongst a verdant sanctuary of palms, tropical fruit trees, and lush farmland hidden in the outskirts of town. When you arrive, take a self-guided tour of the exquisite grounds, order a carrot margarita and get ready to chow down on one of the best meals of your life. Being in Baja, the catch of the day is always outstanding but be sure to ample some of the goods from the ranch – raised-onsite pork shoulder, chicharrón and charcuterie boards.
Todos Santos: Magic Town
On the other side of the Baja Peninsula, the Pacific Ocean crashes on the beaches near the bohemian hamlets of Todos Santos, Cerritos and Pescadero. The three tiny towns are prized by artists, surfers, farmers, locals and expats as places to escape from the hustle and bustle of Cabo. These days a paved toll road makes the journey from San José over the Sierra de La Laguna foothills a breeze but don’t tell the masses.
Everyone agrees there is a certain magic about Todos Santos including the Mexican government. In 2006, it designated the town as a “Pueblo Mágico,” a title given to a select few Mexican towns because of their cultural, natural and/or historical significance. You’ll feel the town’s spell as you stroll the cobblestone streets looking for handmade curiosities in the tiny shops or admiring the refurbished haciendas.
Stay at Hotel San Cristóbal, located about 15 minutes south of Todos Santos, which has captured that magic and bundled it up into an undeniably cool luxury hotel. After you check in, don your custom kimono and head to the turquoise tiled pool for a mescal margarita. Enjoy yourself and be sure to spend some time star gazing before you go to bed, early. The day starts at dawn in Baja because of the heat and you’ll want to make the most of your time in this enchanting place.
Getting caught up in the almost mystical magic of Baja happens quickly. The contrast of this ridiculously rough, hot, hard place with the peninsula’s natural beauty and resourceful people will cause your expectations to be exceeded at every turn. Soon you’ll find yourself exploring further and worrying less knowing that Baja always delivers.
Places to Stay
Pendry San Diego, pendryhotels.com/san-diego/ 550 J St, San Diego, CA 92101, USA. (Just 25 minutes from the border, the Pendry is a great place to stay the night before you begin your trip to Mexico.)
Encuentro Guadalupe, grupoencuentro.com.mx/ Km. 75, CarreteraTecate- Ensenada, Valle de Guadalupe, 22750 Ensenada, B.C., Mexico
Hotel San Cristóbal, sancristobalbaja.com/ Carretera Federal 19, Todos Santos, B.C.S., Mexico
Cabo Surf Hotel, cabosurf.com/ Carr. Transpeninsular Km 28, Tourist Corridor, 23400 San José del Cabo, B.C.S., Mexico ◼
© This article was first published in Oct-Nov 2018 edition of World Travel Magazine.