Driving from the top to the tip of Baja California
The artistic colony of Todos Santos has views of the Pacific. (Amy Mulcair)
With just more than 1,600km to traverse, Mexico’s scenic Baja California peninsula is one of the world’s most variety-filled road trips. From Tijuana in the north to Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip, those that take the journey will encounter world famous grey whale watching, ancient cave paintings, high-end vineyards, turquoise bays, endless desert plains of cacti and several missions founded by the Spanish in the 17th Century.
Hitting Highway 1 at Tijuana, the Pacific makes its first appearance on the right hand side and within an hour, the gastronomic haven of Ensenada beckons. Located 112km from Tijuana, the city and its surrounds offer an unrivalled opportunity to sample some of Mexico’s best modern cuisine.
The Spanish first brought grapes to Baja in the 16th Century, and Ensenada is now the centre of Mexico’s wine industry and growing food scene. To see the vines for yourself, pick up a Ruta del Vino guide from the tourist information kiosk located on Boulevard Costero, down by the fishing port, and follow the signs out of town to the vineyards, about 23km away. The many vineyards are spread over two main areas, Valle de Guadalupe and El Porvenir, home to large scale operators such as Santo Tomas and the smaller organic Doña Lupe. If you are tempted to spend a few days tasting, consider basing yourself at the Adobe Guadalupe Vineyard and Ranch, one of the region’s more exclusive producers. They offer just four types of red wine and produce less than 100,000 bottles each harvest. The hacienda (house), designed by Persian architect Nassir Haghighat, has a mix of Iranian and Mexican influences, with an outdoor pool and hot tub offering beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and vineyards..
Back in town, a meal at Manzanilla restaurant, run by chef Benito Molina and his wife Solange, shows off the best of Ensenada’s produce. Open since 2000, the restaurant is located in an old warehouse by the marina, with a huge wooden bar sourced from a 1930s Los Angeles speakeasy. The unpretentious menu has an emphasis on local oysters, clams and abalone; and freshly-made bread and locally-sourced olive oil accompany such dishes as clams with grilled gorgonzola, beef tongue with cactus salad, and grilled trout with rocket salad.
For the region’s best fish tacos, go to the Black Market, where competing stall owners will vie for your business. Located at the city’s fishing port – Puerto de Ensenada – order the fish in a light batter, which is the region’s traditional preparation. A five-minute walk from the Black Market, Hussongs is a cantina that opened in 1892 and claims to have invented the margarita. It is also worth a stop for the historic interior which has hardly changed over the years; there is still sawdust on the floor. While sipping a margarita, watch the locals crowd in for the daily drink specials and the arrival of the nightly mariachi bands.
As Highway 1 goes south, it heads inland, over a stunning mountain range called the Sierra San Pedro Martir, part of the Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Martir, and through ever-changing vistas of desert, cacti and ocean. From December to April, most travellers on this route head to the small town of Guerrero Negro, 740km from Ensenada, for the annual grey whale migration. The local fishermen keep a watch for the first sighting of the season and there are many operators, as well as fishermen, that offer trips to the area’s popular Scammon’s Lagoon, where you are nearly guaranteed a sighting of the whales and their newly born calves.
Heading inland again, 150km from Guerrero Negro towards the small town of San Ignacio, the landscape becomes more desert-like and some of the stranger desert plants, like the boojum tree, make an appearance. Guides often take groups of hikers into the Unesco World Heritage site of the Sierra San Francisco mountains to see ancient rock paintings that experts approximate to be about 7,000 years old.