Under normal circumstances, I am not a massive fan of the Eagles. But as I drove down the Pacific coast of the Baja Peninsula towards Todos Santos, there were good reasons for wanting to hum along to their best-known song. Not least the “dark desert highway”, the “cool wind in my hair”. And the huge landscape to left and right of me, which simply cried out for a 1970s country-rock soundtrack: the cacti towering like giant candelabra; the ominous mountains; the black vultures wheeling overhead.
Baja, man. It starts, as ever, with the geography. Hanging off the west coast of North America, the peninsula known as Baja California (literally “lower California”) is a strip of land so unconscionably long – 1,278km from Tijuana at the US border to Cabo San Lucas in the deep south – that its Spanish discoverers couldn’t believe it wasn’t an island. This is the most sparsely populated region in Mexico, which is saying something. It has desert and high mountains, but also verdant oases, ancient forests and ocean ecosystems of wondrous biodiversity. The rest, or most of it, is history. Hernán Cortés swung by in May 1535 and decided it was too off-the-map to warrant a full-time settlement, but the great stretch of calm water between the peninsula and the mainland was named after him anyway. Until the mid-20th century Baja was pretty much a no man’s land, a territory that was the preserve of myth and mavericks. In the 1940s and ’50s, pioneering visitors, among them John Steinbeck, John Wayne and Bing Crosby, pitched up to fish for marlin and swig tequila. These days Baja’s celebrity rollcall includes Jennifer Aniston, Oprah Winfrey, Cindy Crawford and George Clooney (who also likes to swig tequila, albeit his own brand, Casamigos).
I flew into San José del Cabo from London, via Mexico City, for a nine-day traverse of Baja’s southernmost region – the only part of the peninsula that’s properly geared up for visitors, the other nine-tenths being a vast outback of desert and shining seas, suitable only for serious adventurers with time on their hands.
The fun starts more or less as you leave the airport. I’d only gone a few miles out of San José on the two-lane highway towards La Paz, sleepy capital of southern Baja, and already the landscape was a classic cinema-Mexico arid zone of thorny scrub, agave and skeletal trees. This was proper desert, yet there was nature in abundance. Iguanas perched in cacti; black-tailed jackrabbits scampered across pink desert sands. If I’d come a few months later, I would have caught the thousands of grey and blue whales that make their way down the Pacific coast and into this sea to breed and socialise in secluded coastal enclaves such as Ojo de Liebre and Puerto López Mateos, eight and three hours north by road respectively.
A seaside town bathed by the sparkling turquoise waters of the Sea of Cortés, La Paz has little truck with tourism of either the low or high sort. Of its handful of hotels, only the modest CostaBaja Resort & Spa is at all comme il faut. I enjoyed the sultry small-town atmosphere of its seaside promenade, the Malecón, where townsfolk parade in the cool of the evening before repairing to a taqueria for a Pacifico beer. La Paz makes an ideal base for whale-watching expeditions, for swimming with whale sharks – a colony of these gentle giants lives just out in the bay – or for lazy days on the beaches of Tecolote and Balandra, two of Mexico’s loveliest, blessed with tranquil waters of a Caribbean hue.
One day I set off for the Sierra de Laguna to bathe in a 40ft waterfall and visit a farming family in their rustic rancho. Another day, I buzzed on a private launch to Espiritu Santo, a large uninhabited island in the Sea of Cortés and a place of outsized, pristine beauty. Snorkelling the coral reefs was a kaleidoscopic colour-fest, in dramatic contrast to the barrenness above the shoreline. I saw sea turtles, giant green-and-purple goliath groupers, and parrotfish adorned with abstract expressionist designs. Two inquisitive sea lion cubs swam up to me in a boisterous mood; a manta ray flounced majestically, further out in the crystal deep. I remembered Jacques Cousteau’s description of Baja California’s waters as “the world’s aquarium”.
From La Paz I headed south on Route 1 – a highway that felt more like a lonely mountain pass – into a high sierra lush with vegetation after two days of summer rain. The road took me through El Triunfo, formerly a gold rush town, now a peaceful hamlet where farmers rub shoulders with sunseekers from cold places like Alaska and Seattle, who gather for carrot cake and coffee at the Café El Triunfo.
I found a great many more of those snowbirds in Todos Santos, a funky enclave on the Pacific coast, set amid a forest of palms within sight and smell of the ocean. With a dozen-odd galleries and a floating population of arty expat types, Todos Santos is to Baja what Tulum is to the Riviera Maya, or Deià to Mallorca – but kept real (and this is its saving grace) by a genuine undertow of Mexican life and culture.
Todos Santos is officially a “pueblo mágico”, one of a number of charming Mexican towns (San Miguel de Allende is another) supposed to exemplify the character of their surrounding regions. It pays host to a small but enticing group of boutique inns and B&Bs such as The Hotelito, a delightful “tropical modernist” hangout created by the English designer Jenny Armit; and Guaycura, the prettiest of the inns in the historic centre. The latter, a converted townhouse once owned by a local sugar baron, has gone for a full colonial look: terracotta floors, heavy dark-wood furniture, white-cotton-draped four posters – with an admixture of the hot pinks and greens to which Mexico, like India, is addicted.
I walked the full length of a glorious mile-long beach with Josefina Salas, scion of Guaycura’s well-connected owners. As we talked, mighty waves boomed along the sand in echoing Sensurround. (Baja California’s wild Pacific coast is a very different story from the placid playas of La Paz.) From the vantage point of a palm-roofed palapa high on a hill overlooking the ocean, we watched the sunset over a margarita. During the months of November to March, whales cruise by just a few metres from this beach, flipping their tails and frolicking. “We provide binoculars,” said Josefina.
In the fresh early morning, I strolled around Todos Santos, checking out the mission church, the plaza with its art deco cinema-theatre, the yoga workshops and craft emporia, and the establishment that is certainly this small town’s major tourist draw: the Hotel California. Much ink and many keystrokes have been wasted on the question of whether Don Henley and company were ever actually in Todos Santos, or whether the hotel is essentially a metaphor for drug addiction, alcohol and fame. In fact, Hotel California’s real history is stranger than fiction: it was first opened in 1950 by a Chinese immigrant, who changed his name to Don Antonio Tabasco but was known as El Chino, as a five-room flophouse above a garage. I nosed around the public rooms, which had been done up in rich colours, wondering whether it would be amusing to ask the waiter to “please bring me my wine”. I was tempted to linger, but my final destination was further south, towards the holiday towns of Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo. “This could be heaven or this could be hell,” I hummed to myself as I drove.
And, indeed, “Los Cabos”, as they are collectively known, do seem to have something of a split personality. Once little more than a fly-blown hamlet on the southwestern tip of Baja California, Cabo San Lucas is a booming resort that has bounced back in record time from its disastrous September 2014 brush with hurricane Odile, and now appears to have Cancún and Acapulco in its competitive sights. It is tarred by its reputation as a Mexican Magaluf, beloved of American teens who, for a few weeks in the spring, descend on the beaches of Los Cabos and their plethora of hotels (78 and counting) and cane it in a way that occasionally makes even England’s Balearic balcony-jumpers look respectable.
But the other half of the story to the all-inclusive, bracelet-wearing market is a raft of fabulously exclusive hotels, including Auberge Resorts’ Esperanza, The One&Only Palmilla, The Resort at Pedregal, and the peerless Las Ventanas al Paraíso.
And anyone will tell you: the area is on a roll. Since the hurricane, at least two very cool new places have opened up: the resolutely rock ’n’ roll (but still quite luxe) El Ganzo, and the slick, shamelessly modern The Cape, an essay in grey concrete and retro design where the vibe is bourgeois Venice Beach with a touch of Ibiza. The next few years promise a further flurry of development: there’s talk of a Ritz-Carlton, a Four Seasons, a St Regis, even an Aman. The trick with Cabo San Lucas, I soon realised, is not to bother with tacky downtown Cabo – that way only disappointment lies – but to concentrate on the gorgeousness of one’s immediate, usually sequestered, surroundings. In my case, this meant a stunning beachside villa at Las Ventanas al Paraíso, where my personal “villa host” was ready to crack open the champagne, or to whip up a lobster quesadilla, at a moment’s notice. There was a pool and a fire pit, fine tequila in the fridge door and a telescope to watch the whales. But even the extravagance of Villa 5 paled beside the neighbouring Ty Warner Mansion, Las Ventanas’ $35,000-a-night megavilla that has just come on stream this summer – a stately pleasure-dome for two couples, with its own cinema, games room, putting green and billiards, two gymnasiums and saunas, and a rooftop lounging zone. “I think we’re the first hotel in the world to offer our guests a firework menu,” Frédéric Vidal, Las Ventanas’ ebullient GM, said, as a surprise display lit up the all-white Ty Warner Mansion in full colour.
In the glare of the pyrotechnics, it was hard to remember that just a few days earlier I’d been swimming with sea lions and diving into waterfalls. It’s true that the wild side of Baja California had made my heart beat faster, but this stratospheric luxe is, interestingly, part of the same equation. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of hard nature and soft comforts that best sums up Baja’s appeal. Either way, the place has a powerful magic. To paraphrase the song, you can check out any time you like – but you might not want to leave.