Mention Baja Sur, and the tip of Baja is the area most familiar to visitors. Although it is understandably popular for all the right reasons – great beaches, excellent fishing, many resorts and many, many more things to do – the “burro in the room” is that the authentic Baja most people are looking for seems to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of tourists. The three largest cities in Baja Sur, Cabo San Lucas (68,463), San Jose del Cabo (69,788) and La Paz (251,871) account for 62% of the population of the state.
Many inquisitive, adventuresome visitors who seek the Baja of old only need to look elsewhere to find what they are looking for. To the north on Mex 1, perched a few hundred miles beneath the Giganta Sierra Mountains on the sparkling shore of the Sea of Cortez, is Loreto (14,724). The gateway to a stretch of rugged Baja coastline extending approximately 142 miles north through Mulegé (3,821) to Santa Rosalía (11,765) along the Sea of Cortez coastline, it is inhabited by a mere 5% of the total Baja Sur population.
This less populated section of Mex 1 still offers a glimpse of the true Baja heartland, the land that enchanted Ray Cannon, John Steinbeck, Zane Grey, and Earl Stanley Gardner decades ago; followed by Tom Miller, Fred Hoctor, Gene Kira and Neal Kelly, whose glowing stories of all-things-Baja, fired a new breed of adventurers seeking all the outdoor excitement that Baja could deliver.
Beginning in the early 1960s, Ray Cannon’s weekly column in Western Outdoor News flamed imaginations of Baja and its Sea of Cortez as teeming with a seemingly unending supply of exotic fish.
There were a rugged bunch of venturesome travelers from California and beyond who bravely took on the Baja badlands long before a paved road was even a gleam in some obscure politician’s eye, returning with remarkable stories of traveling along the rough and rugged terrain of Baja’s peninsula nearly completely surrounded by water swarming with fish.
When Mex 1 was finally completed in 1973, the entire 1,100 miles from the border to the tip of Baja covering two states – Baja Sur and Baja Norte – offered a narrow, two-lane ribbon of asphalt allowing the adventurous the ability to not only explore the peninsula by passenger car or light truck, but to tow their small boats. For many, their first destination was Ed Tabor‘s Flying Sportsman’s Lodge nestled on the shores of the Sea of Cortez in a small town named Loreto, which was one of Cannon’s favorite places.
Tabor is long gone and his hotel has changed hands and names several times. In the past 30 years, Loreto has grown noticeably, offering an International Airport, a bus depot and excellent tourism services; hotels up to five stars, bed and breakfast inns, restaurants, RV parks and campgrounds, car rentals, recreational services, developments and even its own golf course. It offers all of this without sacrificing its Baja charm.
Most visitors who come to Loreto are more interested in the long list of outdoor activities found there, not the “drink ‘til you drop” nightlife sought by some.
Overlooking the sparkling expanse of the Sea of Cortez, this is a real town with authentic Mexican charm that attracts travelers to its gracious hotels and slower-paced lifestyle.
The attraction for many early visitors from around the world was the search of extraordinary inshore and offshore sportfishing. The surrounding islands offer phenomenal sportfishing with an abundance of fish like yellowtail, sailfish, dorado, marlin, wahoo and roosterfish. Likewise, great schools of frolicking dolphin can be observed and, with any luck, one might see the largest animal on earth, the blue whale.
A wide area of the Sea of Cortez directly in front of Loreto was declared a National Marine Park by the Mexican Government, thus preserving a large expanse of pristine waters here. There are companies that offer daily trips on everything from open pangas to elaborate “tricked out” cruisers at very reasonable prices. In the afternoon, one can wander down to the small boat harbor and launch ramp at the north end of the Malecón and watch the boats unload their catches.
With the help of a rental car, exploration of Baja’s Heartland is possible. As you drive northward toward Bahia Concepcion, 22 miles long and breathtaking with grand landscapes and a multitude of uncrowded beaches with soft, white sand, dotted with campgrounds, RV parks and hotels, you will find the uncrowded coves and the clean waters of this huge bay absolutely fascinating and perfect for snorkeling, kayaking or other water sports.
Mulegé (3,821) is next on the drive at the upper northern edge of the bay. Here, you will find a variety of quaint hotels, RV parks, restaurants, the bus depot and a dirt airstrip in front of Hotel Serenidad.
You will also find sport fishing, scuba diving, kayaking and tours that combine cave paintings and ecology. One of the prettiest and most laid-back of all the towns in Baja California Sur, the village is situated between two hills covered with date palms.
The Santa Rosalia River flows lazily through the valley and ultimately merges with the sea; huge palm trees, orchards and bougainvillea of all colors, edge this picturesque river. Several full-serviced RV parks line the course of the river just south of the entrance to the town. This is the same river where a Ray Cannon story created such a stir in his day when he related his encounter with the giant snook of Mulegé. Although not giants, snook have reappeared in the river much to the delight of locals.
Thirty-eight miles to the north is the final town on the trek, Santa Rosalía, (11,765). This piece of old-world charm, a working town with a great port and an amazing history, is located between two tablelands by the Sea of Cortez, and displays a unique French architecture in its wooden buildings.
On July 7, 1885, the French company El Boleo initiated a mining operation for the rich deposits of copper after being awarded a concession from President Porfirio Diaz. In exchange, the company was obligated to build a town, a port and public buildings to establish a maritime route between Santa Rosalia and Guaymas which would provide services to the Mexican workers they were employing.
Hastily, this French-inspired town was built, replacing the disordered array of adobe houses that originally stood there, with beautiful wooden ones built on blocks and streets that were meticulously outlined and adapted to the landscape. As you stroll through the town there is the sensation of being in another place and time. The feel is perhaps of New Orleans, with its wooden houses, its balconies and its porches.
Visit the mining museum and the pre-fabricated, galvanized iron church designed by Gustav Eiffel (builder of the Eiffel Tower). In 1884, Eiffel designed the church for an African country where resistance to termites was required and it was displayed at the World’s Fair in France. After the Fair, it was disassembled and shipped from France to Santa Rosalia where it was reassembled in 1895.
NOTE: Do not forget to pick up the best boleos in Baja at the El Boleo Bakery which has been serving up bakery goods for over 100 years.
The massive El Boleo copper-cobalt zinc-manganese deposit, which fueled the town’s first boom period, is now being re-developed with new technology which has already provided a significant impact to the town’s economy. This is evidenced by the recent activity … the construction of Mex 1 through town along with the huge pier built to accommodate the loading of larger ships from the reinvigorated mining operation.
Gene Kira writes in his book,Baja Catch , “Santa Rosalia’s fishing is very reliable for a wide variety of fish species that come and go virtually all year long.” So, although the sportfishing opportunities in terms of catch, mirror their neighbors to the south, the fleet here is mainly a commercial one. Individuals fishing on their own boats do most of the sportfishing. That said, although there are a few pangueros who are willing to take visitors out fishing, the services offered are primitive by comparison to Mulege and Loreto which both have organized sportfishing fleets.
Baja in the raw was what the great Baja writers found along Mex 1…an untouched authentic version that has now been reduced to pockets of Baja Heartlands scattered among the tourist centers.
Following in their paths will allow you to visualize their words and grasp what intrigued them about this hot, rocky cactus-strewn peninsula, stirring their souls and drawing them back like a dorado to a baitball time after time during their lifetimes.