The Perfect Trip: Baja California, Mexico

False killer whales are not closely related to orcas, but they do have impressive sets of conical teeth
Photographer: Justin Foulkes

WORDS: KEVIN EG PERRY
PHOTOGRAPHS: JUSTIN FOULKES

The Mexican state could easily be something out of dream. Follow our ideal itinerary to journey through pristine wine country, to swim with whale sharks and so much more.

Begin your Mexican adventure in the winelands of Valle de Guadalupe, before venturing into cowboy country. Next, head to Bahía de los Ángeles to witness ‘the world’s aquarium’, then drive on to explore colonial towns. Finally, take to the azure waters of La Paz, in the south of the peninsula.

1. VALLE DE GUADALUPE
Eat, drink and be merry amid the rolling hills of Baja California’s wine country.

Days into your trip: 1 – 2

As the sun sets behind towering pine trees, casting long shadows across the Mogor Badan vineyard, Paulina Deckman is reminiscing about the first time she came hereto eat. It was six years ago, and dinner was so good she married the chef.

Drew, her Michelin-starred now-husband, had just opened Deckman’s en el Mogor as an open-air venue to showcase the best of the ranch’s fresh meat, fruit and vegetables alongside the plentiful seafood from the nearby port of Ensenada. “For my husband and me, this is the Disneyland of the ingredient,” says Paulina. “We serve in our restaurant the bounty of the Baja.”

Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe is a special place for food and wine. Cooled by the Pacific Ocean, its microclimate is similar to that of the Mediterranean. And it’s a climate that makes it easy to grow things. The weather is temperate and the hills are green. Squint and you might be in Tuscany. Knock back too much local wine and you may think you’ve woken up in Napa Valley.

Then there’s the seafood. Every morning in Ensenada, oysters, shrimp, marlin, crab, tuna and more are piled high onto the stalls at the Mercado de Mariscos. Serving up a plate of pearly white scallops, Paulina remarks: “These are a signature from Baja California. They’re so fresh they would have been in the water this morning.”

Deckman’s takes the ‘farm-to-table’ philosophy pioneered by Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, in the ’70s and goes one step further. Rather than bringing the farm to its diners’ plates, it brings its diners to the farm. Everyone eats outdoors, beneath the shade of the pine trees, with the scent of the kitchen’s wood-fired stoves Vines stretch to the northern hills of Valle de Guadalupe, on the road to Decantos Vínícola in their nostrils. “Sometimes, people complain about the flies, but we are on the farm and we have to understand the context,” says Paulina, deftly shooing one away from a tray of oysters. “We may serve fancy food, but this is not a fancy place.”

Drew and Paulina are vocal supporters of Waters’s ‘slow food’ movement, that necessary corrective to an obsession with fast-food restaurants. “Here, our food chains are as short as possible,” says Paulina. “We try to be a zero-km restaurant. Everything the ranch produces, we serve.”

And it’s not just Deckman’s. Other restaurants in the valley are following their lead. Nearby, TrasLomita also has its own farmyard and vegetable patch growing ingredients at their sister vineyard, Finca La Carrodilla. Chef Sheyla Alvarado’s signature dish, tostadas de ceviche verde, combines finely-cubed jícama (Mexican turnip) and yellowtail from the fish market with their own home-grown coriander. At the recently-opened Fauna, at boutique hotel Bruma, Chef David Castro Hussong offers a modern reimagining of Mexican comfort food.

The valley’s climate also makes it an especially good place to make wine. The potential of Valle de Guadalupe was spotted early on, with the conquistador Hernán Cortés requesting vines from Spain as early as 1521. However, it’s only in the last decade that wineries have begun to flourish. That leaves plenty of space for innovation. At Decantos Vínícola, Alonso Granados has devised the world’s first winery without a single electronic pump. Believing they can spoil the taste by treating the wine too roughly, his system relies simply on a process of decanting.

While he’s evangelical about his innovation, his other mission is to demystify the winemaking process for the emerging class of Mexicans who want to have a bottle of red alongside their cerveza, tequila and mezcal. “It’s not only production that we do here,” he says. “We want people to visit and have fun. In the old days, wine was only for kings. These days, it’s for everyone.”

2. SAN QUINTÍN & SAN PEDRO MÁRTIR
Explore the peninsula’s rugged, unspoilt heart where condors soar and cowboys still ride.

Days into your trip: 4 – 6
Take Highway 3 to Ensenada and then Highway 1 south for three hours until the turn off on your left for San Pedro Mártir National Park.

Marcial Ruben Arce Villavicencio was eight the first time he sat on a horse. It bolted and threw him off, but Marcial got back in the saddle. Forty-six years later, he’s still riding. He’s been a cowboy all his life, just like his father and his grandfather.

Marcial’s ranch, Rancho Las Hilachas, is just south of San Quintín and is home to 250 cows that wander freely over the 2,700 acres. It takes Marcial and the other cowboys three months to round them up, during which time they camp and eat under the stars. They do many things the old-fashioned way here in Baja California’s dusty heartland. From a young age, the cowboys must learn to be handy with a rope. “When an animal is wild, you have to lasso it,” explains Marcial. “That’s one of the toughest things to learn. It’s what makes taking care of so many animals hard – it’s like having hundreds of children.”

At least he can count on his own faithful steed Algodón (‘Cotton’), a bay-coloured Criollo horse. Algodón will stay with him long after the cows have been exported across the border to the USA where they are worth at least Rs. 52,000 each. Marcial maintains that his cows are worth every penny. “This job is satisfying, but the process of looking after a cow is a responsibility,” he says. “You have to give them a good life, let them run and be happy. When you eat the steak, you will know by the flavour if you did well.”

Marcial doesn’t worry that more cost-efficient commercial farming might, one day, kill off his time-worn way of life. “We’re not afraid of competition from farms like that, because we think people value this more.”

With Marcial herding his cows through the foothills, the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir rises behind him. The mountain range is home to a 170,000-acre national park, a sanctuary for bighorn sheep and mule deer as well as cougars, bobcats and coyotes. The thick pine forests, punctuated occasionally by craggy rock faces, make the perfect environment for hikers and horse riders.

At the very top of the park stand several deep-space telescopes that make up the Observatorio Astronómico Nacional. The location was chosen because of its lack of night-time cloud cover and light pollution, meaning that professional astronomers and amateur stargazers can glimpse the vast Milky Way. And that’s not the only impressive sight to be seen above. Near the entrance to the park is a rocky outcrop where California condors gather. In most places, the graceful birds can only be spotted circling high in the air, but here, they swoop low overhead, their huge wings making a loud crack as they glide down to Earth.

Back on the ranch, Marcial tends to his own animals. Then, with the last of the day’s sunlight fading away, he takes his place on an old sofa outside to open a few beers with his son and brother-in-law. “I can’t imagine going anywhere else,” he says. “We don’t do this for tourism. This is the way we live. If you want to learn about ranches and the cowboy lifestyle then this is the best place to come because we’re not pretending. That’s the special thing about this place.”

To travel this journey and immerse yourself in the natural world of Mexico NOW, check out LPMI’s January 2018 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.