A church sits above a fountain
in Baja California Sur
Mention Baja and your clients will surely conjure up visions of Tijuana and Los Cabos. They’ll probably know next to nothing about the 800-mile-long peninsula separating those two extremes. The first sprawls south from the busy border crossing in San Diego. The second has evolved from a tiny outpost at land’s end into one of Mexico’s most glamorous destinations.
But between the two cities lies vast swaths of the Sonoran Desert, steep Sierras, several nature reserves and a chain of settlements as old as the Spanish conquest. To the west, the Pacific Ocean carves bays and lagoons in a largely desolate coastline. To the east, the Sea of Cortez shelters so many rare creatures it’s often called “the world’s aquarium.”
The Transpeninsular Highway (Hwy. 1) climbs, plunges and twists through two states Baja California and Baja California Sur as it travels 1,000 miles down the length of the peninsula, crossing west to east at just one point, near the state line at Guerrero Negro.
Few clients have the time (or inclination) to traverse the entire peninsula, though the experience is so profound it causes some to repeat the drive annually. Most Baja visitors dip in and out of a handful of destinations, sampling world-class resorts and golf courses, historic mission towns, ancient cave paintings and remote lagoons where whales far outnumber humans. Though the sights are spread far apart, they’re surprisingly accessible once you consider all the options. Airports in Tijuana, Loreto, La Paz and Los Cabos provide entry to many of Baja’s scenic wonders. Cruise ships large and small visit ports along both coastlines. Paved and dirt roads travel into the desert and mountains and along deserted beaches and bays.
Clients seeking exotic adventures need look no farther than Baja. In less time than it takes to fly from San Diego to Miami, West Coast clients can zip into an intriguing foreign land filled with fascinating possibilities. Working with U.S., Canadian and Mexican outfitters you can easily send your clients deep-sea fishing, kayaking with whales, diving with sharks and surfing with the pros on awesome waves. Or send them to lavish resorts to sip fine French wines, dine on caviar and slip into sleep between Egyptian-cotton sheets. Wherever they go, they’re sure to be captivated by Baja’s soulful beauty, best described by John Steinbeck in “The Log From the Sea of Cortez.”
“The air here is miraculous, and outlines of reality change with the moment,” he wrote. “A dream hangs over the whole region, a brooding kind of hallucination.”
Adventures in Nature
A woman gets ready for an outdoor massage
When Steinbeck explored the Sea of Cortez in 1940, the waters along Baja’s eastern shores were the province of biologists and naturalists reveling in the sea’s unique ecosystems. Over the years, researchers realized that the sea harbors 39 species of whales and dolphins, nearly 40 percent of the world’s marine mammal species and dozens of endemic plants. In 2005, the United Nations declared dozens of islands in the Sea of Cortez as World Heritage Fund Sites.
Tim Means, one of Baja’s first adventure tourism operators, has been a leader in conservation efforts since founding Baja Expeditions in 1974. On his initial tours, travelers and scientists sailed in pangas (small skiffs) to the islands off La Paz. Now Baja’s leading eco-tour company, Baja Expeditions offers live-aboard scuba diving and whale-watching trips, kayaking around Sea of Cortez islands and a camp at Laguna San Ignacio a favorite birthing grounds for migrating gray whales. Now, Means lives in La Paz and has introduced dozens of naturalists and curious travelers to the sea and Baja’s other natural treasures.
“Baja Expeditions is committed to connecting our clients to the people and environments of Baja, with full respect and support for both,” Means said, explaining his company’s involvement with the local community. “We lead by example in all aspects of our operation, actively encouraging our travelers, suppliers and industry partners to join us in protecting Baja’s richest resources its land and sea environments.”
Dozens of tour companies have followed Means’ example, offering eco-conscious hiking and biking trips in the mountains and desert, kayaking in the Sea of Cortez and whale watching off both coasts.
“It’s no wonder that Baja California Sur is quickly becoming a tourism magnet for eco-adventure travelers from around the world,” said Alberto Trevino, the state’s secretary of tourism.
Situated on the largest bay in the Sea of Cortez, accessible by ferry from mainland Mexico and flights from Mexico and the U.S., La Paz has become Baja Sur’s adventure-tourism hub. Whale sharks, manta rays and hammerheads migrate to nearby seamounts, providing world-class undersea sightings. Sea lions congregate around Isla Espiritu Santo (a Natural Marine Park) amusing snorkelers and kayakers. La Paz is also the starting point for road trips across the peninsula to San Ignacio Lagoon and Magdalena Bay, the most popular areas for winter whale-watching trips.
Loreto, roughly 200 miles north of La Paz on the Sea of Cortez coast, has also emerged as a leading eco-tour center. Several kayaking companies launch weeklong tours from here, taking clients on leisurely paddles around islands in the Loreto Bay National Maritime Park. Local guides lead independent hikers and cruise passengers to Mision San Javier in the Sierras. In Los Cabos, Baja Wild introduces clients to canyons, waterfalls and coral reefs just a few miles from the resorts. One weeklong adventure includes kayaking, mountain biking, hiking, surfing and other activities along with a night at San Jose del Cabo’s serene Casa Natalia. Talk about the best of both worlds.
The Next Wave: “There seems to be a real shift with clients looking for personal growth,” said Trish Sare, director of Bike Hike Adventures.
The company, which runs “adrenaline driven” kayak trips from Loreto, is combining yoga, meditation and spa treatments with kayaking in a December 2008 itinerary. Guests will stay at Danzante, an eco-adventure resort offering seclusion, stunning views of the sea and sublime solitude.
“People want time for quiet reflection and self-awareness,” Sare said.
Cruising in an Aquarium
People on a yacht from Capella
Binoculars and birding books are the preferred accoutrements for passengers cruising Baja’s shores. Dancing dolphins and spouting whales accompany even the largest ships sailing south from California to Ensenada and Los Cabos, which received nearly 700,000 cruise passengers last year. Most ships continue on to the Mexican mainland, but several Holland America sailings head to La Paz and Loreto, giving passengers more access to Baja’s bounties.
Several smaller lines concentrate on nature-oriented cruises in the Sea of Cortez. Kayaking, snorkeling, bird watching and other activities are combined with land tours in La Paz and Loreto. The ships cruise around Isla Espiritu Santo, Isla Partida and Los Islotes, mooring in peaceful bays so passengers can board Zodiacs and kayaks to get closer to underwater caves and sea lions eager to swim with humans. Guides lead hikers along shell-strewn beaches and up hillsides past stately cardon cacti, elephant trees and prickly pear cacti dotted with fruit.
Most ships are small American Safari Cruises’ Safari Quest carries 22 guests in upscale luxury. Lindblad Expeditions has several sailings on ships carrying around 60 guests; summer trips on the Sea Voyager include scuba diving. Lindblad’s itineraries cover northern Baja’s remote Isla Angel de la Guarda and Canal de Ballenas, home to fin, sperm and orca whales. Cruise West carries less than 150 passengers on its Sea of Cortez sailings and offers extensions to the mainland’s Copper Canyon.
The Next Wave: America Safari has added a new itinerary between Loreto and the Mexican mainland. Passengers will explore regions typically accessible only to private boaters and road trippers. The ship sails north of Loreto to Bahia Concepcion Mulege and Santa Rosalia, a historic mining town with an iron-walled church designed by French architect
Eiffel in 1884. Crossing the sea, the ship will stop at the remote Midriff Islands, where sperm whales feed in plankton-rich waters, then dock at the rapidly developing resort region around San Carlos.
Living It Up
Cabo Azul’s pool
Baja’s reputation as a glamorous getaway took root after the U.S. enacted the Prohibition Act of 1920. Thirsty Hollywood celebrities were soon crossing the border into northern Baja to drink, gamble and cavort at casinos in Tijuana, Rosarito Beach and Ensenada. The act’s repeal in 1933 slowed the action a bit, but word was out and fun-seekers continue to stream across the border to let off steam.
These days, Los Cabos is Baja’s epicenter for celebrities seeking fashionable escapes.
“The unique thing about Los Cabos is not that we have world-class amenities,” said Gonzalo Franyutti, president of the Los Cabos Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s that we have so many world-class amenities in one place.”
A half-dozen Cabo hotels regularly appear on internationally prestigious “best of” lists and continuously compete to up the luxury ante. Las Ventanas, one of the Corridor’s first high-end properties, constantly introduces new levels of service, from pool butlers to Men in White. The One&Only Palmilla literally launched a countrywide movement with its signature hand-on-heart salute signifying “respect and appreciation” on the part of hotel staff. The imaginative Creative Traveler series of packages at the Marquis Los Cabos is always intriguing the latest plays up the cultural side of Los Cabos with Art Walks around San Jose del Cabo’s excellent art galleries every Thursday evening through May 31. Esperanza encourages guests to choose paintings from the resort’s gallery for their rooms. Celebrity designer Dodd Mitchell introduced a high-energy L.A. style into San Jose’s laidback beach scene with his design for the new Cabo Azul Resort & Spa.
Melia hotels slipped a bit of Madrid into Cabo San Lucas with the opening of the sexy ME hotel and fiery Passion nightclub on Playa Medano.
Let’s not forget the spas, both lavish and serene. Pueblo Bonito, a big-time player with four hotels in Cabo San Lucas, caters to dedicated recluses at its boutique Pacifica Holistic Retreat & Spa. The Villa Group, with three properties on Cabo’s popular Playa Medano, recently opened its Desert Spa, the largest spa (at an amazing 31,000 square feet) in Los Cabos.
The area’s golf courses continue to dazzle duffers four Cabo courses are included in Golf Digest’s March 2008 roundup of the “Most Stunning Courses in Mexico.” And Los Cabos has become one of the world’s top destinations for private jet travel. Small, sleek jets park at the Los Cabos airport, which is expanding to include a fourth terminal and more landing strips.
“Los Cabos is constantly undergoing transformation in order to present an enhanced vacation experience to our guests,” Franyutti said, adding that Cabo offers “some of the finest hotel and travel services available worldwide.”
The Next Wave: The next Napa is emerging in Baja’s Guadalupe Valley east of Ensenada as more than two-dozen boutique and brand-name wineries are producing award-winning vintages. Some of California’s leading vintners are investing in Mexican wineries and rumors of a Mandarin Oriental or other posh hotel opening abound. Accommodations are still sparse in the valley, but the six-room Adobe Guadalupe and a few other small inns provide peaceful refuge in a region on the cusp of discovery.
A guestroom at the Cabo Azul
resort is open and airy.
Though Los Cabos seems to have more lavish suites than Capri, world-renowned architects and designers are still sculpting mountains and beaches into luxurious resorts. Engineers have even figured out how to blast a tunnel through the boulder-strewn hill at the very tip of Baja to create the 66-room Capella Resort and Spa, which developer Juan Diaz Rivera said will be “the finest hotel in North America.”
Guests at the ultra-luxurious hotel, scheduled to open this fall, will pay $1,000 or more per night to drive through a 985-foot-long tunnel opening to a panoramic portrait of the Pacific visible from nearly every inch of suites presenting what Diaz calls “a great celebration of Mexican craftsmanship.” His team is using uniquely Mexican techniques for everything from stucco and agave-fiber walls to hand-wrought iron gates and hard-carved wooden doors. Amenities include a 10,000-square-foot Auriga Spa and Wellness Center and a fleet of luxurious yachts berthed at the Capella Yacht Club.
Critical to the overall project are 31 residences scattered on the hills above the sand in the Capella Pedregal. Like many developers, Diaz is banking on what CVB president Franyutti calls “the stellar land values in Los Cabos” and the growing demand for upscale vacation residences. His homes start at $460,000 for one-eighth fractional ownership and $2.9 million for full ownership. Similar developers in resort regions throughout Baja are finding buyers willing to invest millions in vacation homes.
“CNNMoney.com referred to southern Baja, from Cabo San Lucas to La Paz, as one of the ‘Fab Four’ waterfront corridors for Americans to live in Mexico,” said Trevino.
Many exclusive Los Cabos hotels have a residential component, be it the Villas at Palmilla or the Residences at Esperanza. But hotels are an afterthought in some developments. Puerto Los Cabos, an ambitious 2,000-acre development north of San Jose del Cabo, has opened a new marina and an 18-hole golf course with nine holes designed by Jack Nicklaus and nine by Greg Norman. Beachfront lots just north of the marina are selling for $5 million and more, and prices range from $180,000 for a three-week fractional ownership to $700,000 for 12 weeks at Mision la Serena, a private residence club overlooking the marina and the Sea of Cortez. Plans for Puerto Los Cabos include boutique hotels and full-scale resorts but there’s nary a front desk in sight. For the moment, the development is all about ownership.
In La Paz, an Arthur Hills golf course and hundreds of homes and condos are rising at Paraiso del Mar, a 1,700-acre spread on a peninsula in the Bay of La Paz. In Loreto, the Villages of Loreto Bay are rising on 8,000 acres at the edge of the Sea of Cortez. The northern coast from Tijuana to Ensenada looks like a real-estate chessboard with construction either under way or completed on condo towers and small exclusive communities.
Agents need to be on top of the residential component of Baja’s tourism scene as more clients are vacationing with an eye on investments. Loreto Bay recently announced the launch of the first phase of Loreto Bay Vacations, offering fully furnished homes for extended stays. Earth, Sea & Sky Vacations in Los Cabos, representing dozens of properties, was included in Travel + Leisure’s “2008 World’s Best Villa Agencies.”
“We’re finding that more and more tourists who visit La Paz become so impressed with the city that they want to make it their primary or second home,” said Trevino.
Happy is the agent whose clients fall in love with Baja. There may not be a commission in the sale of a residence, but you can be sure of referrals from both buyers and sellers. It makes sense to be on the crest of Baja’s next wave.