Off the beaten tourist track, this part of Baja is perhaps more representative of what Baja was like thousands of years ago than any other area on the long Baja Peninsula. Heading south from the other-wordly region of Cataviña – with its palm-studded oasis and giant boulder nests – it is easily apparent that this Baja’s least populated locale. The vast majority of travelers to this area are driving from the US border to Los Cabos or to La Paz, and their journey will take them through desert and salt flats, along hilltop spines with vast views to the east and west, and through cardón cactus forests and landscapes dotted with the funnyand fabled cirio trees.
What are the geographic highlights of the journey through Central Baja?
Bahía de los Ángeles
About 300 miles south of Ensenada, near Punta Prieta on the western side of the peninsula, a now-paved highway jogs to the east and to the shimmering Sea of Cortez, the Bahía de los Ángeles — Bay of Angels – which was declared a biosphere reserve by the Mexican government in 2007. After a hot, dusty ride, it is difficult not to gasp in awe upon cresting the rocky hills that stand sentinel over the bay: Spread out on the sapphire blue carpet of water far below are stark rocky islands (the 16 Midriff Islands) that comprise the bay. And it is here, in this isolated arena of water, where whale sharks – the largest of all sharks, although non-carnivorous – glide; where humpbacks and orcas visit; where dolphins and sea turtles cruise and make homes. Pangas can be hired to tour the islands and view their desert landscapes; a drive inland (SUVs only) can take you to Misíon San Borja, one of the gems on the mission trail. It’s a tiny town in population and yet a magnificent venue at which to enjoy and experience the natural Baja.
From Bahía de los Ángeles, a jog back to the west and further south will bring you to a routine military checkpoint and dusty Guerrero Negro, on the Pacific Ocean. This is also where the stateline is recognized, separating Baja California from Baja California Sur (and where there is a one-hour time change). This wind-blown town is situated on the Bahía Sebastián Vizcaino, bounded by Isla Cedros and Isla San Benito.
Guerrero Negro is world renown for the Gray Whale Sanctuary Ojo de Liebre (Scammon’s Lagoon) which is the largest whale calving ground in the world where over 2,000 whales can be seen in the peak month. The whales are there from January until April.
The Reserve prides itself on their Pronghorn Antelope Rearing program which has been a resounding success bringing back this highly endangered species.
There is also world class bird watching in the area’s rich estuaries and swamps boasting over 100 different species of birds and having 173,000 birds present in a year!
Guerrero Negro is also also home to Baja’s sea-salt production industry, and the world’s largest salt producing company ESSA and they welcome visitors to tour the operation. The city is a hub for surrounding ranches and villages so there are full services there like fuel, mechanics, welders, supermarkets, stores, bank, a hospital, dentists and many hotels, restaurants and campgrounds to suit every budget.
Bahía Asunción and the El Vizcaino Biosphere
Continuing south, but not necessarily on the highway, travelers enter the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve created in 1988. This region of most vital significance to Baja: Neatly nestled just below the northern border of Baja California Sur between Bahia Tortugas and Punta Abreojos, Bahía Asunción’s bucolic coast offers a much more secluded venue than most of Baja’s higher profile travel destinations. A ruggedly scenic expanse of shoreline features miles of long sandy beaches, offering excellent opportunities for fishing, surfing, diving, hiking and horseback riding, as well as a chance to explore the prolific beds of marine fossils nearby that would delight even the most jaded archeologist. There are hotels and restaurants in the quiet burg of Bahía Asunción, and it offers a nice place to use as an exploration base.
This area also encompasses Baja’s most important gray whale calving grounds. The Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino comprises two lagoons – Ojo de Liebre and San Ignacio – which lie in the central part of the Baja California peninsula, between the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean.The lagoons are an exceptional reproduction and wintering site for gray whales as well as other mammals such as harbour seals, California sea lions, northern elephant seals and blue whales. Both lagoons are situated on the west side of the peninsula, Laguna Ojo de Liebre is connected to the Bahia Sebastian Vizcaino, and Laguna San Ignacio lies east of the town of Punta Abrejos, into which Rio San Ignacio flows.
Adding to the magical quality of the Bahía Asunción region is the fact that there are human historical markers, as well: Missions, cave paintings (Rancho San Francisco de la Sierra) and even ghost towns along the way.
Technically part of the Mulegé municipality, a highlight of Central Baja is the lovely town of San Ignacio – arguably one of the prettiest villages in Baja – a veritable oasis right in the middle of the narrow part of the Baja Peninsula, with its date palm canopy and a beautiful and historic church. This is a stopping point for many bikers and SCORE racers, and a great place to use as a hub for various eco-tours in the region. During whale-watching season, hotels book up quickly and do they at the end of July for the little pueblo’s celebration of their patron saint, San Ignacio (said to be one of the best fiestas in the region!)
Considered part of the Mulegé municipality, Santa Rosalia on the Sea of Cortez is just an hour’s drive from San Ignacio. This under-visited and yet good-sized town has a bygone-days feeling to its architecture and streets. Founded by the French company El Boleo in 1884, that company worked copper mines there until the 1950s. They built houses (many of which boast ornate wood construction, unusual in Baja) and installed a metallic church building created by Gustav Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame).
Mostly undeveloped, Bahía Asunción and Central Baja epitomize the natural beauty and laid-back appeal of Baja. This is an area of unbridled friendliness: hotel owners, boat operators (from charter fishing boats to little pangas), farmers and even tour guides who will lead groups far into the hills on mules to see cave paintings and ruins are all welcoming and informative. There is no gastronomic explosion or cultural rebirth going on here…only simple good food, quiet evenings under a blanket of stars and the sense of ‘past’ and ‘future’ that is captured in rocks, desert and mammals that rule the seas. It is a place that isn’t all that easy to get to…but that calls you back, again and again.