I Returned to Baja California 20 Years After Living There, and Here's How I Fell Back in Love
I expected Baja to feel different, after 20 years, and it does. More polished, more developed, more fancy food. But in the ways that matter, it felt the same.
Two decades ago, a few of my newly-graduated-from-college friends and I walked across the border from El Paso, Texas to Juarez, Mexico, hopped a train through Copper Canyon and boarded a ferry to La Paz, Baja California Sur. Awaiting our crew was a retired Navy Seal, John, who broke his back rappelling out of a helicopter during a training exercise 10 years earlier. He was living on a lifetime pension in San Jose del Cabo, the more charming half of the two cities that comprise Los Cabos. We toured around a bit, watching the 21st century roll in while eating lobsters parlayed from local fishermen for $1 apiece near the sleepy arts community of Todos Santos, and met John’s happy-go-lucky Mexican mutt, Zora.
John had packed his things into an old pickup truck with a camper shell on the back and made friends with a landowner named Fernando out on what’s now known as the “East Cape,” on the Gulf of Mexico side of the Baja Peninsula. He set up camp in an arroyo just up the beach from Nine Palms, a legendary surf spot, and invited us to join him there, indefinitely.
I wrote cover letters to prospective employers on an old Royal typewriter in the biblioteca, the tiny green tent John set up as a library, and we surfed and spear-fished and hunted scorpions and wrangled thieving burros. My savings ran out after a couple of months, right around the time I landed my first full-time newspaper gig, so I flew back home to pack my belongings and head to Idaho to start a career.
I recently returned to Baja nearly 20 years later, eager to show my fiancée all the places I’d rambled back when I still smoked cigarettes and drove dusty roads with a “ballena” (a big beer) in hand on supply runs to and from town. Much has changed. Escaping the airport has become nightmarish (I found a much better option.) A hotel building boom in Cabo has creeped steadily over to the waterfront in San Jose, and what was once barely a road along the East Cape is now mostly paved. In some ways, I dreaded the time warp upon which I was about to embark, fearing I’d find a bunch of gringos transforming yet another place into America-lite.
I was pleased to discover that Baja has retained its charm. Yes, there are luxury hotels and private tunnels to reach them and haute cuisine and farm-to-table food and hipster enclaves, everywhere. But there were also #vanlife kids camping out for free on beautiful and wild beaches up and down the East Cape. And while Todos Santos has grown steadily over the past couple of decades, it’s still a proud community of artists, who launched an inspiring nonprofit called The Palapa Society to ensure that they can integrate themselves into the region in a way that feels helpful, not exploitative.
’93 til Infinity. The trip began the way wintertime tropical vacations often do, with a relaxing few days poolside, peeling away the funk of winter in a floating chair at Chileno Bay Resort & Residences infinity pool, which lies on Cabo’s only coral reef. Save for a quick snorkel trip for a sinus-clearing salt-water lavage and a workout in the resort’s gleaming gym, we did little more here than lounge and be glad about it.
Adopt don’t shop. For dinner, Amelia and I hit Acre Baja, and met these “Pleeease take me home” puppies tucked behind the hotel’s treehouses and villas in a 25-acre plot of land in San Jose del Cabo, which isn’t a short drive from Chileno Bay but not a long one, either. The hotel’s tiled pool deck and open-air restaurant are a designers dream, and its kitchen features creative, farm-driven cuisine. But perhaps the most memorable part of a trip to Acre are the puppies. The resort includes an animal sanctuary for adoptable dogs, so guests can skip the kitschy airport gift shop and instead bring home a new member of the family. (We didn’t.)
Sundowner. The next day, we dragged ourselves from the pool and into downtown Cabo San Lucas in search of the marina, and Seashine Charters, for a yacht ride at Magic Hour. Sunsets are legendary in Baja, especially east of the majestic cape for which the region is famous. There’s no better place to watch orange sink into blue than from a boat. Seashine ferries landlubbers daily to watch breaching whales, snorkel, paddleboard and kayak right off the boat, and of course catch the last rays of the day.
Bienvenidos. Hotel-hopping around the cape is undoubtedly the best way to immerse in southern Baja’s plethora of new options, thanks to a dramatic boom in hotel renovation and new construction following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Odile in 2014. Next, we landed at Esperanza, also an Auberge resort and the only spot with its own private beach in Los Cabos, greeted with freshly made margaritas, sumptuous guacamole, pico de gallo and house-made chips, all to be enjoyed from the infinity hot tub on the balcony. I had come a long way from those newly post-collegiate days in the arroyo.
Dive bomber. After Esperanza, we motored just a few miles away to the One&Only Palmilla Resort, a resort that easily harbors the largest dollop of charm and history in all of Cabo San Lucas. Situated on the Sea of Cortez, the original property was developed in 1956 and hosted guests like Lucille Ball and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It became One&Only Palmilla in 2004, but its historical ambience persists. The best thing about the resort isn’t its wide array of restaurants, attentive staff or beautifully appointed suites — it’s the location, on the shores of Pelican Bay, where as you might expect, pelicans by the dozen splash into the sea for a daily all-you-can-eat buffet.
Nesting. When I last spent time in Baja, the road into San Jose wasn’t lined with massive resorts, so it didn’t feel overly touristy. The luxe offerings extending along the shoreline from Cabo east has spread. The Viceroy, opened last May, offers a super-modern feel in its rooms and lobby, but the short walk towards the beach offers a few twists on that theme, beginning with Nido Cevichería and Bar, which feels like it floats between shallow water lagoons on a path out to the beach, is constructed entirely from sticks and serves sushi, ceviche and other bites that blend Mexican and Peruvian techniques.
Carrots to cocktail. I didn’t realize until about a month before this trip that San Jose hosts a legendary restaurant, Flora Farms, which lies in the foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains. Gloria and Patrick Green started the farm in 1996, three years before I arrived, to supply what was then a small cafe—the first organic restaurant in Los Cabos—with the goods they needed. Now a 25-acre working farm, grocery, restaurant, spa, event space and guest house, Flora Farms is an institution in Cabo. Chef Guillermo Tellez demonstrates his maturity in the kitchen with creative, perfectly executed dishes that let the ingredients shine. And even if you don’t go for a meal, the trip is worth it for an heirloom carrot margarita and a stroll through the onsite gardens.
That view, though. With the wet and the dark of the Pacific Northwest finally fading, we ventured to The Cape, a newly opened Thompson Hotel. While the resort offers plenty of dining and lounging and relaxation options, it was pretty hard to leave the balcony.
Courtside. I don’t know if I was unlucky or not paying attention, but when I was last in Baja, it was noticeably less populated — with whales. On this trip, every time my gaze lingered out on the water I saw a humpback or gray whale spout, or breach, or tail slap. There are few better places to enjoy the show than the Resort at Pedregal, which offers a warm-but-not-too-warm infinity pool in every room.
Choose your own adventure. For our last meal on the cape, Amelia and I got to point at our dinner, at El Farallon, the Resort at Pedregal’s cliffside restaurant. Every meal begins with a stop at the display counter, where diners choose from local bounty like, fresh fish, lobster, steak and scallops before they’re seated.
Make Mexico ornate again. Fully rested, we hopped in the rental car and headed north, curious for a look at a town that’s been blowing up on the travel circuit in recent years. The last time I rolled through Todos Santos, it was a tiny artist’s colony mostly congregated along a couple of small streets a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. Todos Santos has grown up in recent years, but it’s still a respite from Baja’s bustle. I spent the first few nights at Villa Santa Cruz, whose owners, Jessica and Matt Canepa, spent years decorating the interior with meticulous attention. They’re now adding beachfront bungalows in front of the dreamy pool, and there’s a rooftop terrace and fire pit, beachside hammocks and a kitchen serving classic Mexican breakfasts and lunches.
Dog days of winter. A short walk on the beach from Villa Santa Cruz is The Green Room, where waiters serve food truck-style dishes to waterfront tables and where friendly, slightly manipulative pooches hope for table scraps.
Town and country. Todos Santos’ lodging is spread out over several miles, but we had to spend a bit of time in the historic city center. At Guaycura Boutique Hotel in Todos Santos, you don’t have to forego the beach altogether. Guests who stay in this artful hotel in the town center can explore the local shops and galleries on foot and then take a 10-minute jaunt to the beach club, complete with the ocean views and an infinity pool for their Instagramming pleasure.
Ride for your dinner. Chef Karen Dana has two passions: horses and food. So, on a little farm on the outskirts of Todos Santos, Dana raises organic vegetables and, naturally, horses. A day with Eco Baja Adventures means a horseback ride along the beach as whales frolic offshore, then a meal on the farm with dishes like ceviche, fresh pico de gallo and this pretty pozole.
The baron’s bar. For our last night in the city center, Amelia and I rolled our luggage across the street from Guaycrra to The Todos Santos Inn, which occupies a building that dates to 1870, when it was a sugar baron’s estate. A welcome break from modern resorts, this beautiful old property is a time warp. As it doesn’t take more than an hour or two to wander the city streets, we stayed on property for most of the day, reading by the garden pool. For dinner, it was pink duck mole and hibiscus ribs at the restaurant, La Copa Cocina.
Make your own souvenir. After 41 years on the planet, I realized in Todos Santos I’d never taken an art class before. In an artist’s haven like Todos Santos, that felt like a bit of a charade, so we found Tori Sepulveda, who teaches watercoloring to beginners at her home studio, tucked into a quiet neighborhood a few minutes from downtown.
Starglamping. I’d explored the peninsula mostly by land during my time here back in 2000. So for this trip, we found Todos Santos Eco Adventures and a dayslong journey to some less discovered parts of the peninsula. Stargazing is world-class at Camp Cecil, the luxurious collection of tents lining the beach on Isla Espiritu Santo. The island is a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with natural wonders, from fish to rock formations to unforgettable sunsets. A stay at Camp Cecil means kayaking and snorkeling in the pristine turquoise waters, swimming with playful sea lions, and three chef-prepared meals each day by the camp’s culinary team.
Reflections on a life well-lived. Twenty years ago, this was an empty beach on Baja’s East Cape, a half-hour south of the national marine sanctuary of Cabo Pulmo. Now, it’s home to the sleek and mostly solar-powered hotel VidaSoul, where guests can luxuriate in the pristine quiet of the private coastline after a day of world-class snorkeling.
I expected Baja to feel different, after 20 years, and it does. More polished, more developed, more fancy food. But in the ways that matter, it felt the same. In search of that old arroyo I camped in decades ago, we took a hike near Nine Palms (the road to which is now mostly paved) at magic hour. I’d hoped to find the old well from which we used to draw water once the purified bottle we’d bought in town ran dry, or the tree to which we tied a burro to for a day or so as punishment for the beast ravaging our camp night after night. The well wasn’t there, which meant I’d picked the wrong slot canyon, but the hike brought back all the right memories anyway. Baja beckons the well-heeled traveler with dozens of luxury options today, but there are still plenty of quiet, rustic places in the desert for young travelers to hide.