Tourist First

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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Mexico: Baja California Sur, Mostly Uncrowded in May

The beach at Balandra, near the northern tip of the Pichilingue peninsula in Baja California Sur. Note
the two people at the top of the rock. Beaches such as this near La Paz were uncrowded during our May
2016 trip, and almost everyone at these beaches appeared to be locals or vacationing Mexicans.
 
 In May 2016, after the San Diego celebration of daughter Katy's marriage to Ali, Jane and I headed south. We flew Alaska Air from San Diego to Los Cabos at the southern tip of the Baja Califonia peninsula. May is not quite the high season in Baja California Sur. While Cabo San Lucas seemed about as crowded as it could be and San Jose del Cabo was also pretty busy, we got discounted hotel rates in Todos Santos and La Paz. Their high season is months earlier, when whales are giving birth in the warm waters.
     La Paz is not nearly as big a tourist destination as Cabo San Lucas or even San Jose del Cabo. At restaurants in the city, many or most of the other guests are likely to be Mexican, and you'll see few gringos at the beaches north of town. Souvenir shops are few and far between, even along the waterfront. For some people, La Paz may offer what seems like a more "authentic" Mexican experience, while Los Cabos has an international ambiance. There is no subtlety in Cabo San Lucas: the focus is on booze, sun and separating visitors from their money. Parts of Cabo San Lucas, with its Luxury Avenue mall and stores like Cartier, could be mistaken for Miami. San Jose del Cabo is more charming, but almost all the people shopping, eating and drinking are from El Norte.
The rooftop pool and bar area at Hotel Guaycura in Todos
Santos. The house margarita (a classic lime margarita)
can be recommended. 
    We picked up a rental car (be prepared to pay for mandatory insurance in Mexico even though the rental company may not tell you about it in advance, as well as to have as much as a 2,000-U.S.-dollar hold placed on your credit card) and drove the hour or hour and a half to Todos Santos, where we stayed one night at Hotel Guaycura (click HERE for its website) in the central historic district. Guaycura also has a restaurant and beach club a few miles away on the Pacific Ocean.  We had our first dinner in Mexico at La Casita (click HERE), a few blocks from our hotel. We can heartily recommend the ribs if not the cactus quesadillas. On the way back to the hotel we stopped for a drink at the Hotel California, which is much more touristy than the Guaycura.
   
Early morning on a Monday found the streets of
Todos Santos very quiet. 
     Todos Santos is a picturesque small town that seems totally dependent on tourism. Lots of shops and places to eat and drink. The Pacific beaches a short drive away are said to be nice if not terribly safe for swimming, but we didn't get over to them. After one night in Todos Santos, we drove northeast to the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez) side of the peninsula and the city of La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur. La Paz, which has more than 200,000 residents, is on its own little peninsula, jutting north into the Gulf of California, giving the city a west-facing waterfront and nice sunsets despite being on the east side of Baja.
      We stayed farther north on the Pichilingue peninsula at a sprawling resort called CostaBaja (click HERE). It's a golf, sailing and fishing destination (we do none of those), but it's also an excellent base for exploring the beaches even farther north as well as going back south into the city. We stayed there three nights, had two dinners in La Paz, and spent two days visiting the beaches at Balandra and Tecolote, the latter of which has a great view of Isla Espiritu Santo, a desert island known for its sea lions, other wildlife and many bays. Boat excursions to Espiritu Santo are popular, but we settled for a distant view.  In La Paz, we had one dinner at a lively tourist place on the waterfront called Tailhunter (click HERE), where anglers are invited to bring their catch in to be turned into dinner. The second-floor balcony has a great view of strollers on the Malecon (seaside promenade) and sunset views of La Paz Bay.  A second dinner was a few blocks from the waterfront at Las Tres Virgenes (The Three Virgins; click HERE), a fine-dining establishment that serves probably the best food in town and offers a lot of Mexican wines, many from the celebrated Guadalupe Valley.  Our third and last La Paz dinner was at a sushi restaurant at CostaBaja.
The hotel building at CostaBaja. The resort, just north of La Paz
on the Pichilingue peninsula, includes an 18-hole golf course,
a shopping area with several restaurants, a beach club, a marina,
 condos and private homes. In May 2016 our large room with
a balcony was only 95 U.S. dollars a night, and the
hotel seemed almost empty. It's a short drive from here to
nearly deserted public beaches.

Balandra Beach has no food concessions, just beach umbrella and kayak rentals. Tecolote Beach, above,
has a handful of restaurants. We had lunch twice in the largest one, whose high thatched roof is
visible here. Like Balandra, the beach was nearly deserted midday on weekdays in May. At Balandra,
the water is amazingly shallow (like six to 12 inches) for maybe a hundred yards out into a cove. At
 Tecolote, the water gets deeper much closer to shore, and there is a view of Espiritu Santo island.
Balandra, where no food is sold, has a much cleaner beach; Tecolote has more litter, though
the water itself seems just as clean.
   
Walking in the warm and shallow water at Balandra where we rented kayaks
for an hour of paddling around the cove. One attraction here is a large rock
that the sea has eroded so much that it now resembles a mushroom. We saw it
from our kayaks, but it can also be  reached by walking around a rocky headland. 
That's the Luxury Avenue mall on the left, overlooking
the marina at Cabo San Lucas. The marina is surrounded
by a promenade lined with bars, restaurants and tour
companies, all of which seem to have people accosting
passers-by with sales pitches. There's probably as
 much English spoken here as Spanish. 
The Mexican flag flies over the main square in San Jose del Cabo.
On Thursday evenings the square hosts a large art market and
the many galleries in town stay open late. 
     We had driven mostly on Mexico 19 from the airport at San Jose del Cabo, to Todos Santos, and then all the way to La Paz. That route took us west and along the Pacific before crossing the peninsula. Our next destination was San Jose del Cabo and we mostly took Mexico 1 along the eastern side of the peninsula. GPS  and most guidebooks will tell you to take Mexico 19 again; the reason is that Mexico 1 is a serpentine mountain route with hairpin turns and low speed limits. Nonetheless, it was nice to see new scenery.  All of Baja Sur, by the way, is pretty much desert. Loads of cacti, dry gulches and dead-looking weeds.
Rooms at Casa Natalia in San Jose del Cabo overlook a courtyard.
Farther down the courtyard is a small but pleasant swimming
pool. Between the street and the courtyard are the hotel lobby
and its bar and restaurant. Tip for getting a room here: ask
for a room above ground level for a good bit more privacy.
     In San Jose del Cabo, the last two nights of this trip were spent at Casa Natalia (click HERE), a charming inn on the town square. The location could hardly be better, though it required finding street parking for our rental car.  On our one full day in Los Cabos, we drove over to Cabo San Lucas (via the "corridor" of resorts that connect the two towns) hoping to rent kayaks to paddle out to The Arch, a rock formation at Land's End, but the kayak rental person said the harbormaster wasn't letting kayaks go there because of high winds. If you want to browse souvenir shops for items you might also find at Pier One or Amazon, or if you want to drink yourself into an early-afternoon stupor, San Lucas is the place for you. We headed back to quieter San Jose.
     Both of our two dinners in San Jose are worth mentioning. One was at La Pesca (click HERE for TripAdvisor listing), a fish restaurant a short walk south of the square on Boulevard Antonio Mijares, the same street as our hotel. We shared a tuna tartar appetizer (sauced tuna chunks and pineapple; absolutely excellent) and a red snapper that was roasted in savory sauces. Again, wonderful. Our other dinner in San Jose was at La Lupita Taco and Mezcal (click HERE), where a long list of interesting tacos are offered individually. Not surprisingly, there's also a good list of mezcal-based cocktails along with a longer list of mezcal brands.  The evening we were there, a band was setting up in the open-air garden, though when we left around 9 the live music still hadn't started.  Still, a lively and pleasant place and, as at La Pesca, very good food.
     There's more to Baja Sur than the ostentation and alcohol of Cabo San Lucas, the cafe life in San Jose del Cabo, the charming streets of Todos Santos and the beaches around La Paz.  It's the climate. It was hot and dry while we were there, and it was cold and rainy at our home in Maryland. For my money, that's the best reason to visit.