Down Mexico Way - Baja
Everyone has heard of Baja, probably just as famous for its winter-sun seeking celebrities as it is for the whales that come in winter every year to mate. It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit – one of the few places in Mexico that I haven’t been yet.
The Baja peninsula stretches down from California and is actually known as California South, something I didn’t realise until I was looking it up on google maps. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful mix of rolling cactus-covered hills and sparkling blue ocean. Marine wildlife is predominant here and actually very well protected, so it’s always been on my ‘to do’ list as a place to visit.
Cabo San Lucas was my first stop. To me this is like the American equivalent of Benidorm, as in it’s more American than Mexican. Weirdly there are more sushi restaurants than Mexican restaurants and a distinct lack of a Japanese population, just another indication of catering to the American masses that flock here every year for winter sun, cheaper lifestyle and fishing. Like LA, it’s easy to build in a desert environment so as you drive towards the more lucrative town of San Jose, construction is everywhere.
I stayed in a lovely Airbnb called Cabo Sunset Apartments, very reasonable, which was a little off the beaten track, up a hill in a part of town called Pendregal, but which offered amazing views of Cabo, right down to the hill behind the famous ‘arch’. The best thing is that it had a beautiful pool and having the benefit of a kitchen I could make meals and save a bit of moolah at the same time. Cabo sunset is a complete misnomer as in fact you can see the sunrise from here as Cabo faces East, and the sun sets behind the hill. Thanks to Traun who took me under his wing the first night and provided some well-received beers, and Sam for certifying me for Nitrox diving (sadly something I didn't even get to use!!) and taking me for cracking margeuritas at Monkey Business!
Cabo itself has some charming parts but the ‘Senor Frog’ culture is in full force here. You can’t walk down the street without being offered either cigars, jewellery or some sort of boat tour. The marlin fishing competition ($2m for the biggest marlin) was taking place so there were plenty of Americans out to party, including on a renovated party ‘firetruck’ where the revellers threw beads into the crowds on the street, snarling up traffic, much to the bemusement of the locals which I’m sure pine the quieter old days whilst constantly finding up new ways to hoover up American dollars.
Revellers aboard the fire truck, Cabo
Marlin statue and moon, Cabo
I didn’t eat out much, but when I did I went to Tikis which is on the waterfront in the marina, not far from the marlin statue, and the signature sushi dish (first one on the menu, can’t remember what it’s called) is literally to die for. Reasonable too. There’s lots of restaurants in the back streets and some good recommendations online, but having a year off means limiting the food budget and as such I didn’t do much culinary exploration.
I did 4 dives here: 2 in Cabo itself (‘local’ dives) before heading to Gordo Banks which is an hour off San Jose by boat, to try to see Hammerheads which apparently school here regularly. People had also told me about the abundance of mantas in this area. Sadly, out of those 4 dives the best one was a shallow dive near the arch where a small colony of sealions live, my first time diving with them, but nary a hammerhead or manta to be seen, meaning I do need to go back one day!
La Paz is literally a different kettle of fish. I stayed a little out of town in a lovely flat, however in retrospect I should have hired a car for the entire trip, and not been put off by the scaremongering of driving in Mexico. Instead I hired a pushbike, which turned out to be a terrifying experience as Mexican drivers delight in driving at you to scare the bejesus out of you (it worked), however it was the quickest way to get back and forth to downtown without spending money on taxis or waiting for the sporadic public transport. La Paz is bigger than Cabo, however the Malecon is the focus of activity – a long stretch of walkway on crystal blue and refreshingly unpolluted water, where dolphins frolic in the bay. Sunset is the most beautiful time for a walk as La Paz faces west, and take pictures of all the weird and wonderful marine-focussed statues that line the Malecon, with a distinct lack of drunken tourists.
Swimming with a feeding whale shark, La Paz
This place is a marine biologists dream. The bay just 20 mins by boat from the main pier is full of krill, meaning a healthy population of whale sharks all year round. Swimming with them is one of the main attractions, and being reasonably priced something I did twice – swimming with a big feeding female the first time out and with a baby the second time . But the big draw here is an island about 2h from La Paz by boat, called Espiritu Santu. Here there is a massive colony of sealions which are more than happy to engage with people, and I have to put the first dive I did here in my top 10 of dives (and I’ve done a lot!). The cubs especially are amazingly cute with their huge endearing eyes, and if you throw rocks for them will gently mouth your hand, just like an underwater puppy, or come up and investigate your dive kit for a bit of a nibble. To my absolute delight, on our second dive one big mama came in for a bellyrub – she literally positioned herself in front of me for a cuddle. There’s tons of snorkelers and divers but don’t let this put you off, the water is crystal clear this time of year, and as this is a protected park the fish are huge and in abundance, which large schools swimming around continually. I shot a lot of video on my gopro which I need to edit, but as a taster the picture below is a still taken from one of the videos of my fellow diver Nina playing with a curious little pup.
As all the dives are shallow you can be down for an hour at a time, giving you plenty of time to seek out sealions and have a play, and I literally cannot wait to go back one day and do it all again. I booked all my tours and dives through Cantemar. You can also get tours coming out of Cabo – try Manta Divers or Dive Cabo. I didn’t make it to Cabo Pulmo, another protected area with lots of sharking and schooling fish, meaning that one day I will have to visit this incredible part of the world again just for the diving.
One of the other wonderful things about La Paz is the people. I got to meet a lovely group of Swedish folks on my first whale shark trip and we went out to beautiful Balandra beach, about half an hour or so from La Paz by car. There is public transport to this beach from the bus terminal on Malecon but it’s sporadic.
Hanging with my lovely new Swedish friends at Balandra (last 3 photos courtesy of Nina Nyberg)
In addition to meeting Nina my fellow animal lover and diving companion, I got chatting to a girl on the beach who had the most beautiful dog. Massive thanks to Dulce who took me under her wing for the night and gave me the most wonderful and memorable evening by taking me to a Day of the Dead festival and then introducing me to some of her lovely friends at a birthday party.
I didn’t eat out much in La Paz. Dulce recommended Harkerboard which is a little up the Malecon and good value – pizzas are huge and the fish tacos are very tasty. Nina also took me to Falcos which is on Nicolas Bravo, excellent value for money with healthy fish dishes.
I have to say I’m keen to go back to Baja, perhaps even during the next two months when whales will be predominant in the area. I hope it doesn’t expand too much because the marine ecosystem here is truly wonderful and unique.