Mexico's west coast is an exciting mix of mountains, deserts, great beaches and wildlife. David Orkin and Simon Calder go exploring

IS IT A TRAIN?

IS IT A TRAIN?

No: it's the superb shoreline of western Mexico, which meanders for more than 4,000 miles from the US border at San Diego to the frontier with Guatemala. On the way, the Pacific coast crosses the Tropic of Cancer three times; twice near the tip of Baja California and once on the "mainland" just north of Mazatlan.

Travellers to this part of the world will discover dramatic coastal scenery, colonial towns and aquatic playgrounds - not to mention hundreds of fabulous beaches. But if you have your heart set on a train to the Mexican Pacific, you will be pleased to learn that Mexico's only remaining long-distance passenger rail service - along the dramatic Copper Canyon Railway - ends up at Los Mochis after an amazingly scenic all-day ride from the highland city of Chihuahua. To book a trip on this engineering marvel, contact a specialist agency such as Cathy Matos Mexican Tours (020-8492 0000, www.cathymatosmexico.co.uk).

WHERE SHOULD I START?

Baja California: a fascinating, sparsely populated finger of land that jabs 1,000 miles down into the Pacific. It's longer than Italy but only 30 to 150 miles wide. To the west is the Pacific, to the east the Sea of Cortez.

The gateway to Baja is the Californian city of San Diego. Its "twin city" is Tijuana, which lies just to the south of the world's busiest border crossing. "TJ", as it is widely known, is North America's most-visited city, though many of the tourists appear to be college kids from southern California taking advantage of Mexico's lax rules on alcohol. Tijuana has been a bolthole for US drinkers since Prohibition in the 1920s. There are hordes of artefact vendors, and donkeys in sombreros for souvenir photos.

South of Tijuana, the coast is heavily developed; Ensenada is a major cruise-ship stop-off.

SOUNDS GHASTLY

It gets better. Some Baja communities are simply overspill from California, but elsewhere life has that magical Mexican mix of tranquillity and drama. The prime attraction is nature, from mountains, cliffs and coves to sand dunes, "fields" of huge boulders, wonderfully picturesque beaches, date-palm oases and sublime sunrises and sunsets.

The area's flora includes more than 100 species of cactus (such as giant Cardon, which can grow to 50ft high) and a wide range of yuccas. Baja's most celebrated plant is the cirio, or boojum tree, a bizarre and distinctive plant that is found in its thousands throughout the most magnificent area of desert scenery, which stretches south for 200 miles from Rosario.

There are elephant trees, cottonwoods, acacias, mesquites and seven varieties of palm. What you might expect to be a barren desert is in fact incredibly fertile, and the mountains and valleys of northern Baja even have some highly regarded vineyards and wineries.

Along much of the east (Sea of Cortez) coast, the arid mountains meet the deep blue sea. Baja has many beautiful beaches, particularly in the Los Cabos area, around Bahia Concepcion (close to Mulege), and near to La Paz. Adventurers are drawn by the area's deserted beaches, ruined missions and desert hiking trails through mountains and deserts. Most travellers rent 4x4s - there are few sealed roads but countless dirt-tracks in the desert - and some even cycle.

Other visitors are specialists who come to fish, dive, surf, whale-watch, bird-watch, or perhaps study desert plants or centuries-old cave paintings.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU GET TO THE END?

You reach Los Cabos, site of the main airport in Baja, which brings in holidaymakers all year round. Los Cabos comprises the towns of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, and the 20-mile coastal "corridor" between the two - a region packed with beach resorts and golf courses, with a predominantly American clientele. Of the towns, San Jose is the quieter and more traditional; Cabo San Lucas attracts a more lively crowd.

NO WAY OUT?

There is: the ferry from La Paz to Topolobampo on the far side of the Sea of Cortez, operated by Baja Ferries (00 52 612 125 7443; www.bajaferries.com.mx). This lands you close to Los Mochis for the Copper Canyon Railway. An alternative crossing sails from Santa Rosalia to Guaymas (00 52 615 152 1426; www.ferrysantarosalia.com).

NEXT STOP GUATEMALA?

Not so fast. The coastal highway along Mexico's Pacific shore is an inspiring journey between the mountains and the ocean, through a succession of sleepy towns and cities. The average off-the-beaten-track village is a picture of indolence, ranged raggedly around a plaza major where only the church peeks above shoulder height.

At Tepic, the main highway swings inland towards Guadalajara and Mexico City. But, if you turn off to hug the coast and go south-west for 70 miles, you reach the superb Bay of Banderas, which boasts some of the best beaches on the Pacific - plus one of the coast's most interesting towns, Puerto Vallarta, usually abbreviated to PV.

The first recorded settlement here was only around 150 years ago, and even 40 years ago it was a small town with no road link to the outside world. Now the resort spreads for miles around the bay. There are two main parts to it: the old town, Puerto Vallarta, and Nuevo Vallarta, where the modern hotels are concentrated.

The couple largely responsible for its popularity were Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who made the resort fashionable when they came here to film Night of the Iguana in 1963. The film itself didn't exactly end up knee-deep in Oscars, but the stars set a trend for visiting the region. You can visit their love shack: Casa Kimberley, just up the hill from the centre of the resort at Calle Zaragoza 445 (00 52 322 222 1336; www.casakimberley.com). Today it feels like the couple have just popped out for a while, leaving inquisitive visitors to roam around a house that's seen more than its fair share of passion. A double room costs $110 (£65) a night, including breakfast.

CAN I GET ACTIVE IN PV?

In many different ways. You can try paragliding (about £35, supply your own insurance), but a less risky option is the boat trip to the Marietas Islands: an all-day excursion that includes snorkelling, kayaking and a jolly good lunch. The trip costs $60 (£35) through Vallarta Adventures (00 52 322 297 1212; www.vallarta-adventures.com). The Bay of Banderas is also a good location for whale-watching. On land, Natura Bike Expeditions (00 52 3224 0410) runs full-day tours up hill, down dale, and through orchards and small towns. After dark, the resort turns into a US college town in party mood. It is said that the Aztecs used to sacrifice anyone caught drinking alcohol - not any more.

WHERE NEXT?

Acapulco, or Mexico-City-on-Sea as it appears to be at weekends, when many of the capital's residents flood in by road or air. The historic centre has almost been obliterated under new developments, which is a shame: this was once one of the most important ports in the Spanish colonies. Galleons would sail from here across the Pacific to China and the Philippines. It was connected to the Atlantic by the Camino de Asia to Mexico City, which led on to the Camino de Europa to Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico. You can find out more at the impressive Fuerte de San Diego Historical Museum (00 74 823 828; open 9.30am-6.30pm daily except Monday; admission $3/£1.70, free Sundays).

Today, Acapulco depends entirely on tourism. It has traditionally been aimed at the US market, which means that standards are high and you can expect good value (while the locals expect good tips). The big event here is the diving display that takes place from the cliffs at La Quebrada ("the ravine"), at the western end of town five times a day. The cliff divers, or clavadistas, plunge from perches up to 100 feet above the ocean; by the time they hit the water, they are travelling at 75mph.

I WANT TO TRY DIVING - BUT UNDER THE WATER

Then go east to the laid-back travellers' colonies of Puerto Escondido and Puerto Angel. The former is not quite the "forgotten port" that its name suggests, since it is now fairly developed. But it is an ideal base for relaxing at locations such as

the Hotel Acuario (00 52 954 582 0357; $40/£23 for a double room, excluding breakfast), which boasts a vegetarian restaurant, an internet café and a weights room. You can sign up for a five-day Padi diving course at Aventura Submarina (00 52 582 2353), which costs around $400 (£230). Puerto Escondido is also popular with surfers.

Puerto Angel is quieter, though its beaches can be adversely affected by pollution after heavy rain, and also have strong tides. Zipolite, further west, used to be a hippy last resort par excellence (complete with a nudist colony, a rarity in Mexico), but its long, pretty and safe beach is being developed. The hippies have moved away to the bay at Mazunte.

From here you face a long trip back to real life, whichever way you do it. The tortuous road inland to Oaxaca takes many hours to cover a distance of barely 100 miles. Instead, continue east along the ocean to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

A MERRY ISTHMUS?

Not really - this is the hot, low neck of land where the country is pinched between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean to a width of less than 100 miles. The main point of interest here is that the Pan-American Highway brushes against the ocean for the first time since leaving Alaska. You can either follow it inland to San Cristobal de Las Casas, or stick doggedly to the coast through a succession of dusty towns until you finally run out of Mexico at the border town of Ciudad Hidalgo.

WHEN SHOULD I GO?

From November to May, which is when both the temperatures and the risk of tropical storms will be low (though in northern Baja, you may experience cool, cloudy days). Be warned that this is peak season, and prices over Christmas and New Year can be very high.

HOW DO I REACH THE MEXICAN PACIFIC?

The easy route to the area - the non-stop flight from Heathrow to San Diego on British Airways - has been abandoned. The airport at the southern Californian city is only an hour from Tijuana by bus and trolley (tram). You can travel on a range of US airlines to San Diego, but since you will need to change planes in an American city, you might as well connect for a Mexican city.

Continental has an extensive network of flights across Mexico, including to Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco, with plenty of connections from Houston (served daily from Gatwick), Newark (served from Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester and - starting next May - from Belfast, Bristol and Edinburgh). American Airlines can get you there from Gatwick or Manchester via its Dallas-Fort Worth base. Expect to pay around £550-£600 return on either airline, though much more over Christmas. Alternatively, take BA's Heathrow-Mexico City service and get a specialist agent such as Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) or South American Experience (020-7976 5511; www.southamericanexperience.co.uk) to work out a domestic flight itinerary that takes advantage of various air-pass deals.

If Baja is your destination, you may save cash by finding a cheap flight to Los Angeles and one from there to Loreto, La Paz (make sure it's La Paz, Mexico, not La Paz, Bolivia) or Los Cabos, or indeed driving across the border - though if you are renting a car, you should check with your rental company that you are permitted to take the vehicle into the country. You will also need Mexican motor insurance.

CAN I GET AN ORGANISED TOUR?

Certainly. Britain's leading mass-market tour operators have stopped selling holidays to Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco, concentrating instead on Mexico's Caribbean coast. But the specialists recommended above can put together bespoke itineraries.

TrekAmerica (0870 444 8735; www.trekamerica.com) has a 10-day lodging (as opposed to camping) tour of Baja that starts and finishes in Los Angeles. There are various departure dates between late November and March and the tour costs £475 plus a kitty of $70 (£40): flights to LA are not included but can be found for around £300 return other than for departures at Christmas.

Some companies run camping tours into Baja - try the unique Green Tortoise (001 415 956 7500; www.greentortoise.com), which uses converted Greyhound buses. A good company for sea-focused tours (such as sea kayaking, diving) is Baja Expeditions (001 858 581 3311; www.bajaex.com). Explore (01252 760000; www.exploreworldwide.com) has a Sierra Madre hike that starts in Mexico City, visits the lovely colonial city of Oaxaca and ends on the Pacific coast with time in both Puerto Escondido and Acapulco; the next departure is a week from today, for a price of £1,149 including flights from London, plus a local payment of $245 (£175).

A WHALE OF A TIME

The seas of Baja California are one of the world's great whale-watching destinations. During January and February hundreds of grey whales arrive in the sheltered waters of Magdalena Bay, on the west coast of Mexico's Baja California, to rest and give birth. Adults may measure 14m and weigh up to 40 tons. On the other side of the peninsula there are also superb opportunities to get close to the giants of the sea. Natural history specialist Wildlife Worldwide (020-8667 9158; www.wildlifeworldwide.com) offers several different tours to Magdalena Bay, San Ignacio Lagoon and the Sea of Cortez, with departures from late January through to early April 2005. The price of £1,895 includes scheduled flights from London, hotel/ship/tented camp accommodation, most meals, transfers and expertly guided whale-watching tours.

MEXICAN PACIFIC - LUXURY HOTELS

It may be neither prime converted-hacienda country nor the fashionable Mexican riviera, but there's a clutch of stylish hotels along the Pacific coast. Starting in Baja California, at the end of Highway One, is the glitzy tourist enclave of Cabo San Lucas. What was once a tiny fishing village is now a bustling resort and world famous sport-fishing destination - with hotels that have long-seduced Hollywood's cognoscenti. Gwyneth and Chris honeymooned at Las Ventanas Al Paraiso, a sleek designer bolthole just down the road. Overlooking the evocatively-named Sea of Cortez it's a mix of Mediterranean and Mexican architectural styles, built around a serpentine string of pools that blend seamlessly into the ocean. Rather like a grand old hacienda, white stucco and adobe walls are accessorised with huge candelabra-style cacti. The resort has 60 suites, all of which come with telescopes for stargazing and whale-watching. Further down the coast, tucked away down a dirt-track two hours south of Puerta Vallarta, is a luxury eco-hotel created by the Italian fashion designer Marcello Murzilli. Boasting guests such as Val Kilmer and Joni Mitchell, Hotelito Desconocido is situated on the El Ermitano estuary, which is home to more than 200 species of birds. The hotel resembles a traditional Mexican fishing village, with 24 palafitos, or thatched bungalows, half on stilts bordering the estuary and the rest on a broad sandbar overlooking the Pacific. The walls are painted in bright colours, there are no locks on the doors and no glass in the windows. And there's no electricity. In the evening, light comes from candles that are scattered around the room and hot water is courtesy of solar panels at the back of each hut. Hotelito encapsulates the idea of "rustic luxury". The sheets may be crisp white cotton and the mosquito nets handmade muslin but the floorboards are hewn from rough wood and the palafitos are open to the elements; wind and sand whistle through unhindered. There's also a sleek sea-water swimming pool, horse riding on the beach, nature walks, yoga, deckchairs and hammocks to collapse into, plus the obligatory open-air spa.

There's more barefoot luxury at El Tamarindo, also on the central Pacific coast. Set in a 2,000-acre coastal rainforest reserve, an hour and a half's drive from Manzanillo, there are 29 thatched palappa bungalows. The Tamarindo's sister property, El Careyes, is located nearby and is a slightly larger, Mediterranean-style, resort. If you prefer an exclusive Mexican villa, decorated with traditional textiles and art, then Elixir de Careyes has three to choose from: Casa la huerta, Casa altiplano and Casa candelabro.

Las Ventanas Al Paraiso, (00 52 624 144 0300, www.lasventanas.com). Double rooms from $730 (£429)

Hotelito Desonocido (00 52 322 281 4010; www.hotelito.com) Doubles from $410 (£241)

El Tamarindo (00 52 315 351 5032; www.starwood.com). Villas cost from $385 (£226)

Elixir de Careyes (00 52 315 351 0344; www.elixirdecareyes.com) villas from $1,500 (£882) per day

Lucy Gillmore

WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?

Lonely Planet and Rough Guides publish polished guidebooks to Mexico that cover the Pacific coast in reasonable detail. For Baja, try the Baja guide by Joe Cummings from Moon Publications. For further details, contact the Mexico Tourist Board in London, on 020-7488 9392 or go to www.visitmexico.com.

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