From 30,000 feet, Baja California looks utterly unforgiving: less a holiday destination than an unworldly crumple of bare rock. The spectrum of desolation you see from the aircraft window runs from rust to old leather, decorated by dried-up riverbeds that resemble sad, discarded ribbons of beige.
Some people come to Baja in search of cosmic experiences. Well, on the flight down, you may undergo one yourself. The peninsula that marks the end of the western world looks as raw as Earth itself when first the planet coagulated from a cosmological cloud. Baja California: twinned with the Moon, Mars and other heavenly hell holes. Yet at sea level, beneath a benign blue sky, this lonely outcrop delivers enlightenment and enchantment.
This 700-mile-long finger of land, the same area as England, jabs into the Pacific. The interesting bit, touristically speaking, is the last 100 miles or so – from the cuticle to the fingertip, if you will. At the very end lies Cabo San Lucas, Mexico’s Land’s End and the southern tip of what was initially believed to be the island of California.
Today it is a fragment of American excess, offering indulgence at a price (and, for 18-20 year olds, an age) unavailable north of the border. The business model of bars such as Squid Roe (“Sorry, we’re open”) and Señor Frog’s is to allow young Americans to pour industrial quantities of cheap liquor down their necks. Add the cruise ships decanting thousands of passengers daily, and you have a cocktail that is more about highspeed gratification than slow-burn appreciation.
Even so, the drama of the setting transcends the motley fleet of glass-bottomed boats and jaundiced submarines taking day-trippers out to the rocks marking the end of Mexico’s tail. The ocean has sculpted a natural arch, perfectly proportioned to frame photographs, and bestowed the cape with beaches whose granules melt beneath your feet.
Besides being a meeting place for students on spring break, Cabo San Lucas is a maritime divide. The waves that wash to the west of the peninsula are Pacific; to the east, the Gulf of California (also known as the Sea of Cortez, after the conquistador who exploited Mexico’s western coast). Follow this shore, and you find a sequence of timeshare resorts – the tourism industry divided into fractions of time and space, fenced off from the local population.
The bus journey along the coast gives the chance to untangle the tricky human geography of Baja: even the cheap rattletraps that perform as buses are equipped with Wi-Fi. But to save you the trouble, and allow you to enjoy the view, here’s a precis.
The peninsula began to peel away from the Mexican mainland about 15 million years ago and has been only tenuously connected ever since. The name 'California' was deployed by the Spanish colonists to describe the territory from the southern tip of the peninsula to roughly halfway up the west coast of the present United States. It was then subdivided into Alta (“higher”) California – today’s Golden State plus territory to the east – and Baja (“lower”) California, along an ecclesiastical frontier: Dominicans dominating the southern parts, Franciscans the northern area.
After Mexico ceded its northern territories to the US, the peninsula remained out on a limb. Until the second half of the 20th century, it was classed as a territory rather than a proper state. In 1952 the northern portion attained statehood, as Baja California, but the lower part – suffixed Sur, or south – had to wait until 1974 before it achieved equal status. It remains chronologically out of step with the rest of Mexico. If you arrive from the “mainland”, you put your watch back an hour; from Tijuana in the north, ahead by 60 minutes.
San José del Cabo is a pleasingly timeless place whose sleepy main square feels uthentically Mexican. Church and town hall jostle for importance among low-rise buildings daubed in earthy tones. All auténtico – until you turn a corner to discover real-estate vendors and art galleries that are catering for Alta Californians. Retirees from Los Angeles and San Francisco know that a US pension stretches much further with a Mexican cost of living.
Across on the Pacific side of the peninsula, the US has established an even deeper presence. Todos los Santos (“All Saints”) is where the Tropic of Cancer meets the Age of Aquarius. The cosmic line of latitude cuts through the town, while massage and metaphysics converge to satisfy body and soul in what is officially a “Pueblo Mágico”.
The heart of Todos los Santos is a neat grid of streets punctuated by trapiches: handsome 19th century sugar mills. The 21st-century counterparts are boutique hotels, such as the Hotelito – pink and purple cubes piled up like dice between the town and the shore. For something more traditional: welcome to the Hotel California. The property once stood, appropriately, on a desert highway. The hotel has been bypassed, and upgraded to the point where you feel you have wandered into a gallery of naïve art rather than a place to stay. You can check in any time you like, so long as your credit card can withstand a minimum of US$163 (£108) for a double room.
For some, Todos los Santos provides enlightenment: you could sign up for a holiday next January with Sacred Passage that promises 'deep and soul-enlivening' Nature and Awareness Training.
But to learn more about the land, put down your margarita, put on your walking boots and traverse the peninsula along that cosmic arc, the Tropic of Cancer, to explore the canyons with Edgardo. He left his desk in Mexico City to delve into the natural wonders of Baja. He drives an oversized pick-up truck laden with bikes, benches and tourists with an eye for adventure. I met him in the main square of Santiago, a classic one-horse town –with free Wi-Fi, which explains the collection of Sudcalifornios communing with the outside world on laptops and tablets.
Baja’s canyons are furrows on the fingertip, running down towards the sea and supporting a handful of ranches where chickens, goats and children are raised. Edgardo parked outside one and led his human cargo down through the undergrowth and across the boulders to an oasis. Tectonic upheavals have left huge rocks strewn across the canyon, creating natural dams that provide instant refreshment. The water sparkled in anticipation of leaps from the debilitating heat into sheer exhilaration.
After marvelling at nature’s benevolence amid an arid wilderness, I dried in seconds like a sea lion basking on rocks, then followed Edgardo through the cultivated plants and herbs, culminating at a ranch kitchen for a lesson in taco-making – though instead a cornflour disc ready to be griddled, I produced an unappetising scarf of starch.
We rumbled through the afternoon in the backyards tiny communities whose homes and lives revolve around a church. I was glad to glimpse how humanity survives in the back of a very distant beyond, and gladder to return to faux California in the back of Edgardo’s truck. He dropped me in the nearby resort of Los Barriles, where Mexico’s Highway 1 glances against the Sea of Cortes.
All roads – well, there are only two – lead to La Paz, the ramshackle capital of Baja California Sur. In 1853, an American adventurer named William Walker captured the city and declared himself presidente of the Republic of Lower California; in the face of the Mexican army, he relinquished control and later made the same self-appointment in Nicaragua. This episode is not mentioned in the local museum, for which admission is 35 pesos (£1.75) – the same as a beer at the rooftop bar of the Seven Crown Hotel on the seafront, which represents much better value. Then lounge about at the Posada Luna Sol, a rambling hacienda two blocks from the sea, until the spirit of exploration draws you to the island of the holy spirit.
Espiritu Santo is a comma off the coast north of La Paz, and destination for one of the best boat trips anywhere on Planet Travel. The tour guide, José, is a marine biologist. As he explained how rich the waters are in marine mammals, dolphins lolloped lazily in the background to provide confirmation. We were soon chasing a whale – not from voyeurism, but because José spotted a humpback that had become entangled with a fishing net, and needed to pinpoint its position to enable specialist divers to extricate the unhappy cetacean.
We landed for lunch on Espiritu Santo, a desert island trimmed with immaculate beaches – and offering a appetite-whetting hike into the interior. Quickly you find yourself amid the crumple of rock you saw from the plane, with the added challenge of cacti that bristle against the visitor.
The highlight of the day, and the entire trip, was the chance to snorkel with sea lions. The standard 'swimming with dolphins' outing takes place in a controlled environment with habituated mammals. No way, said José, was the sea lion experience anything like that. “Do not approach them,” he instructed. “Just rest on the surface. If they feel like it, the young ones may swim up to you.” After half an hour with these aquatic amigos, I wasn’t sure who was entertaining whom. But I was thankful to José, and his fellow Mexicans, for the happiest of endings: a journey to the end of the western world, and back again.
There are no direct flights between the UK and Baja California. The easiest connections to La Paz or San José del Cabo are from Heathrow via Mexico City on AeroMexico (020 7801 6234; aeromexico.com) or via Dallas-Fort Worth on American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk).
Aguila (autotransportesaguila.net) is the main coach operator in Baja. The 95-mile trip from Cabo San Lucas to La Paz takes 2.5 hours; fare 255 pesos (£13). Cheap and frequent local buses run between towns.
In San José, Simon Calder stayed at the Tropicana Inn (00 52 624 142 1580; tropicana inn.com.mx); in Los Barriles, at the Hotel Los Barriles (00 52 624 141 0024); and in La Paz at the Posada Luna Sol (00 52 612 122 7039; posadalunasol.com).
Edgardo Cortes offers day-trips in the canyons near Santiago for US$60 (£40) per person including lunch at a ranch; contact him at bajasierradventures.com. José Juan's all-day kayak and snorkel tour from La Paz costs US$95 (£63) including equipment, lunch and permit for Espiritu Santo National Park. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The chapter on Baja California in Lonely Planet's Mexico guide (13th edition, £17.99) is good. As soon as you arrive you can pick up the excellent series of free maps and travel guides published by Got Baja (gotbaja.mx).