For years, we’d heard from friends about the tranquility and beauty of Baja California Sur, Mexico. Cabo San Lucas has always been on our radar as it was a favorite destination of Sooney’s cousin and of our neighbors in Ashland. We tend to avoid resorts and prefer to travel to more natural locations whereas pools, bars, nightclubs, and excessive sun are not particularly compelling to us. We do love authentic food, however, and started thinking about the area when a friend purchased a small casita near the small, artsy, beach community of Todos Santos. Fast forward to an entirely different itinerary exploring southern Baja California with a total pass on Cabo and our interest was piqued. A foodie friend was going to Baja for a month, invited us to join him for a spell and so, in late November 2023, off we flew to see the general area for ourselves.
Our traveling companion and his late wife enjoyed years of travel adventures together, and he continues to graciously invite friends to join him for parts of his lengthy stays in pleasant destinations. His itinerary on this month-long holiday included stays in Buenavista, La Paz, and Loreto, all of which would be both culturally and ecologically compelling destinations. While a common theme of his travel centers around local cultural sights and fine dining, our travels tend to focus on exploring the natural world with an emphasis on birding. To be truthful, we love to cook and food is always an attraction both at home and on the road. We therefore had little difficulty agreeing to join him on a portion of his trip and, as usual, my notes here will help us remember details about the journey.
We departed from Ashland on the 22nd of November with a transfer in LAX. John left a day earlier on another airline and overnighted in Phoenix. His arrival to Juan José de Cabo International airport coincided with ours by a few hours, giving him time to secure a rental car and meet us near the arrival terminal. We had no desire to linger in Cabo San Lucas, and proceeded immediately north on Hwy. 1 toward Buenavista, a small beach community on the eastern coast of Baja and a few miles south of a popular surf kiting destination, Los Barriles. John wisely chose a place he’d visited on an earlier holiday, The Buenavista Beach Resort, and we enjoyed a couple days orienting ourselves to the southern reaches of the Sonoran Desert. We’d expected to find a similar environment to what we’d experienced traveling in the Sonoran desert in southern Arizona; dry, barren, ranch land with weather reflecting the high elevation of Tucson and Patagonia, AZ. To our surprise, the desert abutting the Bahia Las Palmas (the Bay of Cortez separating mainland Mexico from the Baja Peninsula) is in the rainshadow of the Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra La Laguna with its highest peak reaching 6,230′ – a formidable range that effectively keeps the east side of southern Baja California moist and densely foliated with an extensive variety of cactus (predominately Cardón) and flowering shrubs, all successfully flourishing in granitic soil.
A few weeks before our arrival, a devastating hurricane smashed into the coastal town of Acapulco, located approximately 800 miles south of the tip of Baja California. Acapulco is on the Mexican mainland, and while the strength of storm dissipated, it continued to damage coastal towns in its path as it traveled north. The coastal range in southern Baja California tends to draw northerly winds and there were signs of severe damage not yet cleaned up when we arrived at our second major destination, La Paz. Reportedly 40 vessels were sunk in the La Paz marina alone.
In Oregon, we’re accustomed to moist marine air staying on the western slopes of the Coastal Range; hence our state’s history of a successful logging industry and protected Redwood forests providing habitat for many water-loving plants and animals. In Baja, it’s the reverse; northerly winds head up the eastern coast of Baja, supporting the growing industry of wind and kite surfing in rapidly-developing pueblos along the coast. Further north of La Paz, the winds dissipate and wrap westerly around the coastal range where it tends to be dryer. The growing community of Todos Santos on the Pacific side is popular for tourists looking for dryer conditions and bigger surf. Todos Santos is approximately an hour’s drive due south from La Paz, and is connected to long-time tourist destination Cabo San Lucas by a newer highway (Hwy 19). The triangular route from Cabo to Todos Santo to La Paz and back along the eastern coastal via Hwy. 1 a popular route for tourists tired of lounging by the pool in over-developed Cabo.
From Buenavista, it’s a short drive to La Puebla de Santiago, and we did some hiking at the Reserva De La Biosfera Sierra La Laguna. It’s a quiet preserve with easy trails down to a beautiful stream and waterfall. Accommodations are available there should one desire to bird the area earlier than when we arrived. Nevertheless, spotting a Greater Roadrunner is always auspicious for one’s first day of birding. A recommended restaurant beckoned us back to Santiago, and we dined at La Palomar, the haunt of Hollywood celebrities who traveled here in the 50’s looking for fun and shooting birds. The Enchiladas con Mole were OK, and the place showed fading signs of its illustrious past. We were the only ones there and, after totaling up, he addressed our request for nearby birding hotspots. Now THAT was a topic he was familiar with, and he gave us excellent directions to a dilapidated soccer field adjacent to a watery preserve. We enjoyed late afternoon light while spotting a variety of beautiful birds, highlighted by a curious Crested Caracara that soared right above us for some wonderful flight images.
On our return to Buenavista, we crossed an arroyo still exhibiting signs of the heavy rains from a month earlier. Our rental car maneuvered admirably in the soft sandy roads that serve as thoroughfares throughout the pueblos, and at one intersection we stopped for photos at a tree hosting a mixed flock of interesting species. After several minutes of clicking, a weathered farmer approached and invited us into his yard that included an orchard of avocado saplings. (Mexico is allegedly addressing the huge demand for avocados from the US by illegally deforesting protected land on the mainland. We didn’t see such abuse in Baja). He was very proud of his garden, and invited us to return and stay at his home. It merits saying that we’ve had wonderful interactions with local residents and through it all, my rusty Spanish is generating smiles and good will.
The Buenavista was delightful and met our need for a friendly reintroduction to Mexico. The rooms were nice (the windows actually open), the service wonderful, and our final night was thankfully on a weekly social event: Taco Tuesday. All the expatriates in the area gather for lousy beer (not a Bohemia in sight) and delicious taco options served up by the friendly staff. Top that off with a traditional flan and we slept more than comfortably. Of course, our eventual destination was La Paz, and we had one more night en-route: El Triunfo, a tiny historical site and the location of a huge abandoned mining operation.
Comfortably protected by St. Barbara, the patron saint of miners, construction workers, and those who work with explosives, we overnighted at the El Triunfo Cabanas Hotel Boutique, an interesting collection of old and new, and dined at a favorite restaurant of our companion: Restaurante Bar El Minero de El Triunfo. The food was delicious and expensive, which brings up a noteworthy reality: traveling in Baja is not particularly cheap—at least the way we’re doing it. We were staying at accommodations and eating in restaurants (along with Mexican nationals) that were priced comparably to what one would pay in similarly fine dining locations in Ashland.
That didn’t stop us, however, and we topped everything off with delicious ice cream. Throughout our travels we also were never far from something unique to us: a Paleta (essentially frozen juice on a stick, made with either milk or, our preference, water). Not all Paletas are the same, however, and a favorite is the Mango, frozen with chunks of fresh fruit just large enough to worm their way between your teeth.
A day trip from El Triunfo is the not-to-be-missed Santuario de los Cactus in nearby El Rosario. It’s somewhat tricky to find (the road sign is only visible to travelers headed in OUR direction). We liked it so much we returned the following morning for better sightings and saw our first “life” bird there—the Gray Thrasher. As we packed up later for the short drive to La Paz, the hotel’s owner asked us if we’d like to see a hummingbird, and pointed to a nearby tree providing shelter for a nesting Xantus’s hummer, an endemic species of Baja and our second life bird. It was simply that kind of day, and we’d just begun. Leaving on a high, we returned to Hwy. 1 and arrived at Hotel Catedral at dusk on 23rd, Thanksgiving, and celebrated with Tacos at a bar on the Malecon (promenade) that runs for 3 miles along the coast, boarding the city from the sea.
Here are maps illustrating our driving routes during our visit:
A gallery of photos supporting this Travel Journal may be viewed at nickviani.com/birdingbaja23. As usual, wildlife-specific images are housed at sobirds.us. Finally, here’s a LINK to the next episode from this series, Birding Baja. Enjoy.