Watching whales where the desert meets the sea

I feel like anyone who grew up watching American sitcoms, dramas and films knows about Cabo. I’m not sure how, or where from, but somewhere along the line it inserted itself into my consciousness, initially as a fairly glamourous, sun-drenched beach resort where suspiciously affluent journalists or fashion buyers would ‘weekend’, and then as a bead-filled party town swimming in booze for the Spring Break crowd. 

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Neither of these descriptions are really a good fit for my parents. My stepdad Tony is not really the pool party and keg stand type, and I can’t see my mum jetting down the coast for a weekend of 5* hotel luxury either. So I was mildly surprised to find myself driving in to Cabo San Lucas with them both, and their birdwatching friend Sujan, as the sun set behind El Arco.

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Cabo was a fascinating place to visit. It was, without a shadow of a doubt, the least Mexican place I’ve been to in Mexico. Even outside Spring Break, the harbour was filled with shot bars and pumping music, while every beach restaurant was populated almost exclusively by Americans, waited on by Mexicans dressed up as Mexicans, Zapata moustaches, wide-brimmed sombreros and tequila on every tray. 

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I can’t say I took to Cabo San Lucas, but it definitely had some gorgeous spots. El Arco, the remarkable rock formation out in the sea is pretty special and immensely photogenic, as were the twin beaches of Lovers’ Beach and Divorce Beach, two sides of the same stretch of sand. A little way down the coast, another beach, El Chileno, was remarkably uncrowded, and the shallow water was literally overflowing with shoals of technicolour fish. 

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The rest of Baja California, however, was astonishing. A fascinating part of Mexico, almost entirely cut off from the rest of the country, and enormously influenced by its proximity to the States. The landscape is genuinely extraordinary, as mountains dominate this thin little finger of land, before swooping down sharply into bleak desert which merges almost seamlessly with beach, and finally deep azure sea. I went on a few runs and striding across the beach as the sun rose from the sea in front of me, before climbing sharply into serious cactus-filled mountains with the entire peninsula stretched out beneath, was a pretty serious experience. 

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After Cabo San Lucas, Myriam and I set off into the wilderness in our little car, in search of an underwater national park. We eschewed the highway, aiming instead for the delights of an extra hour on the coast road. Half an hour in and we discovered that while Google was adamant we could make it, our Chevy Spark was not quite the All-Terrain-Vehicle that would have been required, and fearing our hire car deposit we backtracked. 

Cabo Pulmo, our eventual destination, was everything we had been promised. Still requiring a good forty-five minutes of fairly hairy rough-road driving, its remoteness has protected it beautifully. The town is an L-shaped road that ends in a quiet beach, and the sea, and reef beyond is more beautiful and full of life than most places I’ve ever been. We snorkelled above a vast, ball-shaped shoal of huge silver fish, twisting and turning in amazing synchronicity just inches from our faces. We swam above tiny little darts of blue and yellow electricity, zipping in and out of coral, lighting up the water. We dived down to come face to face with large, honking sea lions, as graceless and smelly out of water as they are graceful and elegant under it. Finally, as the boat turned for home, we got our first glimpse of the most incredible of the denizens of the Sea of Cortez, a mother and baby grey whale, rising and diving gently around us as we aimed for the shore.

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The main draw for my parents (perhaps) and Sujan (certainly) of Baja was Birdwatching, and this seemingly placid activity, it appears, takes you to some surprising places. We were in Baja California for a week, and the most excited I saw Sujan and my parents was at the prospect of a pre-dawn visit to a black water treatment facility just outside of La Paz. At every turn the prospect of remote desert, sewage sites or abandoned industrial areas brought a gleam to their eyes. Myriam and I had toyed with the prospect of joining them on their birding jaunts. There had been talk of mule rides, I was pretty curious about the whole thing, and some of the photos my mum had sent me of their previous trips were fairly breathtaking. But despite having been regaled with tales of municipal rubbish dumps in Delhi, and sewage plants in Brazil, the lure of an extra few hours in bed, then a morning on the beach, outweighed my curiosity. I may never understand the thrill of the unique combination of black water, sunrise and turkey vultures…

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After Cabo we stayed in a gorgeous, sleepy little seaside town named Los Barriles. Huge, deserted beaches, towering mountains and quiet sandy roads gave the place a real liminal feeling, like it was lost somewhere just out of reach. Like Cabo San Lucas the vast majority of people here were American, but unlike Cabo these guys were residents, having swapped the rat race of San Diego or Los Angeles for a life of fishing and quiet contemplation (and surprisingly drunken evenings at our hotel bar!) south of the border. The two places couldn’t have been more different, and although it was still an odd sensation to essentially be staying in a small Californian town that had accidentally misplaced itself, I rather loved it. 

Our final experience was without a doubt the best, and probably one of the most intense and remarkable of my life. Due to a minor logistical snafu we took a drive back down to Los Cabos, to board a boat in search, like Ahab, of a whale. Having seen a couple from afar in Cabo Pulmo, I was interested, even excited, but also felt like I had, in effect, already been there and done that, and was mildly concerned that filling three hours with distant sightings of dark, watery shapes might be somewhat anticlimactic.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. There are no words to describe the magnificence, the intensity, the sheer unbelievable size of a whale, breaching yards from a small boat which rocks pleasantly with their swell. From the very first sight of a plume of water in the distance I was hooked, and the hours sped by almost immediately, as some twelve whales in total approached us with curiosity, checked us out, dived, danced and spouted water around us while we stared in wonder. I still can’t quite get my head around them, and the experience will stay with me for some time.

Baja California has a somewhat otherworldly feel to it, wherever you go. Whether it’s the remote beauty of the underwater national park at Cabo Pulmo, the almost eerie silence of the sand, sea and mountains pre-dawn at Los Barriles, or the parodic decadence of the party vibes at Los Cabos, this just seems like a place apart from reality.

3 Comments

  1. Most interesting report. Thank you. Lived in Calif. almost entire life, and never even been to Tijuana, let alone the rest. After getting dumped by first love, later learned that she went to San Felipe (have you been there?) with her new beau. She was a dark-haired lovely and, on her return, even darker and more desirable.

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    1. I can’t recommend a trip down the coast enough, Richard. I’d go further than Tijuana, though! I’ve not been to San Felipe myself, but I’ve heard good things. If you can get that far, everything south of La Paz is pretty gorgeous (get an ATV to go to Cabo Pulmo), until you get to Los Cabos, where I’d recommend San Jose over Cabo San Lucas – bit more artsy, authentic and quiet. If you want a party though, then Cabo is the place!

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