By Chris Sands
Ships of the desert rarely foreground fishing boats, but Cabo Adventures’ Outback Camel Safari seems to specialize in arresting images, from enormous cactus plants sprouting springtime flowers to moth larvae pickled in cactus juice. Perhaps that is why the fun and informative eco-tour has become one of Cabo San Lucas‘ most popular outdoor expeditions.
Our safari began with a Unimog ride up the coast to Rancho San Cristobal, where our guide, David Alba, took us on a nature hike to introduce us to some of Baja’s native flora and fauna. Alba also gave us some background on the native inhabitants of the area, the Pericu Indians, as we threaded our way through the desert terrain, dwarfed by some tremendous specimens of Cardon cactus. Almost completely confined to the Baja Peninsula, Cardon are the largest cactus in the world, and they grow to heights of up to 70 feet. On our tour, we saw several Cardon well over 50 feet high, and upwards of 200 years old. The upper reaches of the Cardon were blooming with bright yellow flowers, pollinated by nocturnal visits from leaf-nosed bats.
After the hike, it was time for a camel kisses and tandem rides along the beach. Camels were once native to North America, but became extinct on the continent over 10,000 years ago. They were reintroduced by the U.S. Army just before the Civil War, when they were thought to be excellent pack animals for the Southwest. Thus, the U.S. Camel Corps was born (and soon died when it was discovered that the camels terrified horses), a little known military experiment that has become a historical footnote.
The camels we rode on the beach came from Texas and are descendants of the U.S. Camel Corps. During the 19th century, camel handlers were brought over from Africa and the Middle East. One of them, Hadji Ali, lives on in American folk songs as Hi Jolly. Another moved to Mexico, where his son, Plutarco Elias Calles, became the country’s president in the 1920s. The present day camel handler for Cabo Adventures, Sidi-Amar, is from the Tuareg tribe of the Sahara Desert, one of the world’s last great nomadic cultures.
These historical intersections are one of the reasons I found the tour so fascinating, and the history continued with a lesson in tortilla rolling, as demonstrated by our guide using a stone mortar and pestle. Tortillas are central to Mexican culture and cuisine, and have been since the days of the Aztecs. We enjoyed the glories of fresh tortillas during lunch, which also included chicken, beans and salsas, as well as a delicious nopales salad. Nopales are a vegetable that comes from the pads of the prickly pear cactus, and are a local delicacy prepared with lime juice and queso fresco.
Once we finished the afternoon repast, our tour concluded with an interactive tequila and mezcal lesson. You can find these Mexican liquors in any local bar, but they also have a cultural significance. In Oaxaca, for instance, the caterpillar at the bottom of the bottle (hypoptis agavis to be precise) is often offered as a sign of respect. It may be proffered to a guest in your home, or to the oldest person present at a holiday party.
No one on our tour seemed overly flattered by a chance to chomp the caterpillar, nor were the crickets met with universal approval. Crickets are a traditional pairing for mezcal, and in Spanish are called grillos or chapulines. The insects are prepared with lemon, salt, and chile powder, and are actually quite good, once you get over any initial squeamishness. And if you don’t particularly like the lingering aftertaste, don’t worry. Another shot of mezcal will kill it.
How to Get There: The tour meets at the Cabo Dolphin Center, which is located on the Cabo San Lucas Marina, near the Cultural Pavilion. Check-in time is 8 a.m., and the tour concludes at about 2 p.m.
What to Bring: Comfortable shoes are suggested for the hiking portion of the tour. Hats and sunscreen are also recommended.
Cost: $99 dollars for adults, $70 for children.
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