Blue seas and Baja bravado

JOHN GIMLETTE
Last updated 05:00 02/04/2014
Mexi

BEWARE PRICKLES: Spikey cardons along the Sea of Cortez.

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Do you ever feel as if you're in a movie? We had a Life of Pi moment the other day. Like its hero, we were off the coast of Mexico, in a little boat (all right, minus the tiger). A humpback appears, and swims around just beneath us like some enormous black, liquid airliner. It's a silent scene, as none of us dares breathe.

From underwater, you'd see the three of us, peering down into the Sea of Cortez. Our daughter, Lucy, has her mouth wide open. It was to become a familiar expression over the next fortnight, that mixture of delight, astonishment and just a hint of panic.

These shores have been tempting fantasy for hundreds of years. Over in the west, there's Baja California. Twice the size of Belgium, this peninsula is stretched out over 1400 arid kilometres. Historically, anything living in the southern half -where we began - had to survive on dew, and, every summer, the landscape turns a roasted red, with a delicate fringe of pale-blue volcanoes.

From1535 on, everyone (including Cortez) thought they could tame it, only to be beaten back by heat, thirst and American Indians.

We were based in La Paz (the oldest town in the south, though it's no older than 1811). Although it has a few swish hotels and a promenade, it still feels like an outpost. Pelicans patrol the waterfront, and occasionally commandos (although no one's ever seen a drug war, they don't want one here). Life otherwise seems to be treated as a party, and New Year's Eve went on for days.

Beyond the streets, the desert begins. To a child like Lucy, it seems, at first, as if there's nothing here but cardons (think of armoured cucumbers, nine metres tall, with their arms in the air). But, with the right guide - like Orloff - a secret world appears. We found the footprints of a raccoon, and a coyote with pups. Even the plants seemed to be fighting it out; ''wolf's milk'' poisons everything, and the ''governess'' sends out roots to kill off its neighbours. We also came across a heap of old clam shells, left by the Pericu Indians several centuries before. ''They all died out,'' said Orloff (who had been an anthropologist), ''once smallpox appeared.'' The reward for all this desiccation was the beaches.

These were vast expanses of ridiculous turquoise. We often had the sand to ourselves, except for the frigate birds, looking for gulls to rob. You couldn't have designed these places better. One, Balandra, had nine little coves scalloped out of the mountains. In the mouth was a colony of sea lions, all drunk, it seemed, on fish.

It was the same out on Espiritu Santo, but wilder. Although it's twice the size of Manhattan, no one has ever settled this island except some short-lived Jesuits and a Japanese whaling fleet (whose members, in 1858,were all expelled or killed within three weeks).

Nature, therefore, has this place to itself: bone-strewn beaches, and an exquisite pink mountain rising 600 metres out of the sea.

Best of all were the whales. For the humpbacks, we drove south to Cabo San Lucas. Even before we got there, we could see their spouts, rising off the ocean. Cabo, meanwhile, services cruise ships with everything they need (Viagra, mostly, and peep-shows). It's brassy and flash, and I can't say I liked it, but John Travolta and Madonna do - and so do the humpbacks. That day, we saw half a dozen, grazing the depths. Back in La Paz, there was an even greater treat: the whale sharks.

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These fish, 12 metres long (the biggest in the world), hang around offshore sucking up the plankton, and - this time -we were encouraged to disembark and swim alongside. John Steinbeck, writing in 1940, thought this coast was fabulously unreal, and I sometimes wonder if this was an unreal moment; swimming shoulder to shoulder with a vast biological vacuum-cleaner, the size of a bus, and covered in polka dots.

Happily, photographs suggest not.

Every year, 24,000 grey whales also visit Baja California. Starting in the Bering Strait, they'll swim more than 8000 kilometres in two to three months.

For our last few days, we flew across to the other side of the Sea of Cortez, and everything changed.

This time, the mountains rose in a wall of green, 3000 metres high, with mangoes at the bottom and snow at the top. This rampart - the Sierra Madre Occidental - defends an enormous habitat of outlandish creatures ( such as bears and giant toads) and a way of life broadly unchanged in 2000 years. What's more, through it all runs a system of fissures, 2000 metres deep.

Collectively, they're called Copper Canyon, and are deeper and more extensive than their grand American neighbour. Oddly, the way through this vast tectonic obstruction is by train. We boarded in El Fuerte, the conquistadors' gateway, a pretty town with an ominous fort. At first, all seemed well; plush seats, fancy restaurant, and a posse of soldiers.

It was only when it began to climb that I realised this was the maddest railway in the world. Soon we were diving into tunnels (86 in all), and then we corkscrewed up through a cathedral-like chasm. In 250 kilometres we climbed 760 metres. Small wonder that the Chihuahua-Pacifico (or ''Chepe'') was 100 years in the making, finished in 1961.

Higher up, another magnificent movie unrolled. This time it was cowboy country, with log cabins, horsemen, Apache pines, and huge, brown, well-muscled rivers. We stayed two nights up here; one in Creel, where the shops sell things such as cougar skins and biscuits by the sack; the other we spent on the canyon's rim, at Divisadero.

For some, there are zip wires and cable-cars. For others, it's enough just to stare down into this enormous purple hole in our planet's crust.

Like all good westerns, this one has its Indians. We spent our last day visiting the Tarahumaras in their caves.

Everything about their world was slightly surreal; huge rock formations shaped like mushrooms and frogs; urns made of pine needles; moon worship, and a ritualistic football, played across the mountainside (for more than 40 hours). Orloff said they never speak to white people, believing we're unfinished goods (''unfired clay'').

Before leavingwe stopped at the San Ignacio Mission (built 1744).

High in the wall is a motif to the sun god. I like that; the idea that - here in Mexico - little has changed, and that we outsiders, for all our fancy innovations, are merely grateful spectators.

The writer travelled as a guest of Audley Travel.

Down Mexico City way

For many of us, Mexico City is often only a stopover.

But, in just two days, you can get a tantalising glimpse of a civilisation that was grand, imaginative, and fabulously bloody: the Aztecs.

In some ways, this is still an Aztec city. Everyone has Aztec genes. But more than DNA, there's a blend of exuberance and iniquity. Mexicans are among the fattest, happiest people on the planet.

There's a touch of Aztec everywhere: in the beggars dressed as dwarfs, and the fire eaters waiting at the lights.

In every other sense, the ancient city of Tenochtitlan has all but disappeared.

The lake on which it stood is now covered in suburbs.

Its vast main plaza (the Zocalo) looks defiantly Hispanic these days, and the Templo Mayor-once 39 metres high - is now a stump (having only emerged from the concrete in 1979).

A few places would still be recognisable to ancient Aztecs.

One is the city that predated them, Teotihuacan (circa AD350-650), an avenue of pyramids dedicated to human sacrifice. Another is more serene: Xochimilco's floating gardens - the place to come punting while chewing your way through a leg of lamb.

Finish with the Anthropological Museum. Here are the Aztecs in flamboyant detail: jewelled skulls, a pregnant monkey carved from obsidian and a vast urn for human hearts.

FIVE PLACES TO STAY

FOUR SEASONS HOTEL, MEXICO CITY A 240-room Parisian-style hotel, with a calm topiary filled courtyard, fourseasons.com, doubles from about A$630 (NZ$672) a night.

SEVEN CROWN CENTRO, LA PAZ A simple modern hotel with a pool (but no dining room), well placed for the seafront, sevencrownhotels.com, doubles from about A$200 ($213).

POSADA DEL HIDALGO, EL FUERTE A mansion of stone-flagged courtyards, guns and paintings. Zorro was born here in about 1795, hotelposadadelhidalgo.com; doubles from about A$180 ($192).

HOTEL DIVISADERO, DIVISADERO On the rim of the Urique Canyon, the views are unforgettable. The food may be institutional, but this is a very cosy eyrie; hoteldivisadero.com; doubles from about A$250($267)).

THE LODGE AT CREEL Unusually for a Best Western, there are big cat skins on the walls, and the cabins have very welcome iron stoves; thelodgeatcreel.com; doubles from about A$190($203)).

TRIP NOTES

TOURING THERE Audley Travel offers a 12-day tailor made tour of Baja California and Copper Canyon. See audleytravel.com.

WHEN TO GO Baja California is in bloom from January to March, and whales are prevalent. Avoid July and August when temperatures reach 40 degrees. December is fresh, and good for whale sharks.

SEE+DO To swim with whale sharks, operators on the La Paz seafront charge about A$100 ($107) (three hours). Creel's museum has a section dedicated to the Tarahumaras (entrance A$1 ($1.07)). Live like a cowboy and eat a workers' lunch (comida corrida), for A$6 ($6.40), at Veronica's in Creel.

MORE INFORMATION visitbajasur.travel

- Sydney Morning Herald