We just completed a driving tour of southern Baja, covering over 600 miles in the course of a week. This amounted to 3 nights in Cabo and four in Loreto Bay. Along the way, we spent a good deal of time in Todos Santos, as well as the surrounding villages and missions of Loreto. Driving in Baja is an adventure, requiring: a) the ability of a quarterback to scan 365 degrees at one time; b) the vigilance of a traumatized child; and c) the reflexes and quickness of a rattlesnake. [Note that separate TripAdvisor reviews are posted on most of the restaurants/rentals we stayed in during this trip. I can also send you photos of places we visited, as I don’t think they’ll post here].
The trip started off in Cabo, which is my opinion, is a cross between Las Vegas and Tijuana (without the fires in the street, of course). Cabo was raw, gritty, and somewhat offensive, with no fewer than three strip-clubs in as many blocks. Walking along the waterfront shops, men repeatedly called out to us, asking if we wanted to rent a boat or go on a fishing expedition. Whether we smiled, said no, or ignored them, they inevitably said something offensive to or about us after we walked by. On the city streets, shop owners hounded us to come in for ‘a look,’ and women repeatedly offered us a ‘massage.’ Some of the tourist guides on the corners also offered to help us, as “…we know what you’re looking for.” We are two men … and we are not in our 20s.
We ate in restaurants that can be classified as ‘tourist fare’ and some as ‘local fare.’ Most of it was okay, but nothing to store in one’s memory. The only exception was the night we ate at La Dolce. Absolutely wonderful! No wonder it ranks #3 on the TA website.
Granted, we didn’t take advantage of the full opportunities Cabo has to offer (sea expeditions, off-roading, whale watching, fishing, surfing, etc.), but it astounds me that people—especially those with young children—come here, and during their trip, exclusively stay here. I suspect that Cabo is one of those places that appeals to those who want to feel they’ve had an international experience, but the closest they actually get to this is showing their passport at the airport. San Jose del Cabo, east of town, looks a bit more inviting, clean, and family-friendly.
Our first two nights in Cabo were spent at the Bungalow’s, which is a great inn off-the-beaten-track, but well within walking distance of most restaurants and shops. The rooms are small, but cozy, and there is a large pool and lush surroundings. We tried to get back into the Bungalow’s on our last night, but it was full, so we opted for the Comfort Inn. That was an experience, but it fit the bill, as we needed to be near the airport on our last night. Besides, it reminded me of why I need to avoid ever ending up in a prison cell.
Getting to and from Todos Santos was a challenge, as much of the route is under repair. It’s manageable—even in a small rental car—but pay attention and remember, that ocean view isn’t for you, the driver. You’ll get that later. At least traffic flowed, as best as it could.
Todos Santos is cute, but in line with my comment about Cabo, it’s more of an artificial international experience. Most of the shop owners speak English, and you don’t really feel like you’re in Mexico unless you’re on the periphery of town (like when we had to pass through a military checkpoint with armed soldiers … now THAT’S Mexico). Todos Santos actually has an upcoming music festival which will last several days. That will place it on a lot of radar screens, which may be good, as the tourist volume was pretty light when we were there. Even when we went down to the beach---during which time we were stopped by a police officer and asked to make a ‘donation’ (the purpose of which he couldn’t explain) for ‘charity’---there weren’t many people there.
Since we live in New Mexico, much of the art in Todos Santos looked familiar, which meant we didn’t feel the need to buy much of anything. We did find a nice wine shop, however, which sells many Northern Baja wines. As a rule, these are typically very good, but surprisingly, they cost two- to three times as much as the imported wines (if you can, try to find wines from Bodegas de Santo Tomas). Lunch at Hotel California was very good (ate there twice), and talking with the waiter was the only time we were able to use our Spanish while in town.
The drive from Todos Santos to Loreto was long, and there were plenty of donkeys, cows, and horses on the highway. If you drive under 90 MPH on that stretch of road, you will get killed. Not by the animals, but by the other drivers. Fortunately, most drivers will flash their lights, in order to alert you to cattle on the road. But for most drivers, that’s only a cue to ‘drive around,’ not to ‘slow down.’
We stayed in Loreto Bay, which is an all-inclusive, eco-friendly development, which sits right on the coast. The setting is amazing, and we saw the bay at sunrise; at sunset; by day; while walking its shores; from high in the mountains; and while on the plane back to the States. Google it just to see the beautiful and colorful architecture. A combination of the global economic downturn, the real estate crisis, banking failures, and headlines about Mexico’s drug wars interrupted what this place was to become, which is probably a good thing (unless you’re an owner/investor there).
We rented a house through VRBO.com and the place was wonderful; two stories; 3 outdoor sitting areas; a stones-throw from the beach; cable TV for the Christmas night Green Bay/Bears game; fully-stocked kitchen; and all for under $100/night! Unfortunately, the owners next door split for the holidays, leaving their two small dogs unattended and on the roof the entire time. Literally, from sun-up until at least midnight, these little guys barked nonstop. It plays right into the stereotype of how animals are treated in Mexico. Yet, nobody could do anything about it: The owners of the place we rented live in the US; the property manager took a vacation out of the country; no crime was committed, so Security couldn’t get involved; and if I tried to rescue the dogs and bring them in with us, I probably would have been arrested.
Within Loreto Bay itself, we hardly heard a word of Spanish, and never from the residents. The owners are mostly white and upper class, and for many, their experience of Mexico is, well, Loreto Bay. It’s a golfing community, which probably sets the stage in your mind for what the scene is like there. We bopped over to the clubhouse restaurant, which had good reviews on TA, but the food was bland. When we asked if they serve wine, the first waiter said no. The second waiter then said they did, but our choice was one of two bottles he happened to have in a small refrigerator. That alone freaked me out and I wanted to leave, but my partner said no, so we stayed.
When we drove to the town of Loreto, it was much more authentic, lively, and full of character. The main church is incredible and has quite a history. There’s also a nice museum next door, which includes a good collection of artifacts/stories of Loreto’s past.
Went to a liquor store in town (named Cacti y Licor; love it!) and found a wonderful Spanish wine. Unfortunately, it had no price on the bottle so they wouldn’t sell it to us. I tried to pitch an offer, but ‘no tag, no sell.’ Damn. We had something from Argentina instead.
On Christmas Day, we drove to Mission San Javier high in the mountains. Construction started in 1744 and it looks it. Unlike a lot of historic churches in Europe or even the US, this place hasn’t had a lot of repair. The chapel is small and reverent, and the grounds are peaceful, with a combination of palms, cacti, olive trees, orange trees, and horses. The road to San Javier is ¾ paved, and along the way, you pass pictograph sites, as well as what appear to be natural-spring oases, with pools of water and palm groves. We took lunch and water, which I’d recommend, even if you don’t drive up on a holiday.
The drive back to Cabo was just like the drive up. Fast, animal-filled, and gorgeous/desert scenery. Made it to Todos Santos in time for lunch. Driving back, no tickets, no accidents, no donkeys hit. The last night in Cabo was just like it was the first two nights, though more people were in town. Didn’t stop the cat-calling and offers of massage, however. We finally sat in an outdoor bar, had dinner, and watched the Saints/Atlanta game.
Southern Baja has more to offer than what we partook in, but we had a good experience and a relaxing time. Clearly, I like ‘primitive’ Baja, not ‘tourist’ Baja. There is room for both, but you usually have to pass through one to get to the other. Next time, I think we’ll drive to Guaymas (on the mainland) and take the ferry over (to Santa Rosalia). We’ll be able to avoid the whole Cabo scene, but will still get to hang out in Loreto Bay, while venturing further into the interior of the area by day.
Finally, on the TA website, there are weekly inquiries about Baja’s safety (given all the news about drug cartels and killings in Mexico). At no point did we feel unsafe or feel there was the potential for any harm (except while driving). Safety was never an issue for us, and though some of the locals in Cabo were annoying, they never meant any harm.