El Santuario Eco-Retreat, Baja California Sur
by Melissa Gaskill
In a flash of orange and black, an oriole landed on the windowsill of my casita, then flitted to the thatched palm roof, serving as a wake-up call timed perfectly with rays of sun rising over the mountain peaks. A clear Baja California Sur sky turned deep blue as leaves rustled in the breeze over an ever-present whisper of waves.
It wasn’t easy to get to El Santuario Eco-Retreat, six small dwellings scattered discreetly among the desert’s gnarly torote blanco trees and many varieties of cacti, overlooking a crescent of beach lapped by the multi-hued waters of Mexico’s Gulf of California. But that’s part of its appeal. After a flight to the growing village of Loreto, it’s 30 or so miles south by taxi or rental car on narrow paved road, then another unpaved mile to the gate, little more than a gap in the trees with whale bones arching over a sandy path.
More paths of deep, fine sand wander the property to the casitas, each hidden from view of the others. Names like Sueno, Danzante and Escondido, carved on wooden fish with bright glass-bead eyes, point the way. The complex, rounded out by a communal yurt, bath house, and open air kitchen, is framed in on three sides by the steep, rugged slopes of the Sierra de la Giganta and on the fourth by the water, where tall Isla Danzante and long Isla Carmen seem to float in the air just off shore.
It would have been perfectly satisfying to relax on my porch the entire week, emerging only for generous meals cooked by women from the nearby villages of Ensenada Blanca and Ligui, featuring fresh-caught fish, fruits and vegetables from the farmer’s market, and a variety of delicacies such as handmade empanadas and fresh tortillas. But the wealth of activities proved too tempting for that. Blue Waters Kayaking, which handles booking for El Santuario, offers planned group tours and guided activities á la carte for solo guests (some require advance booking). I shared my week here with a group tour, led by a pair of personable and astonishingly knowledgeable guides, Eli Shostak and Erin Bohm. Running down the list of options that first night, Shostak summed it up well: “There are no poor choices here.”
The first day, I walked south on the beach to a series of jutting rock shelves. At their edges, small fish swam in three or four feet of gin clear water. Gulls, pelicans, frigate birds, and a pair of osprey flew overhead, while herons and pipers waded along the sandy part of the shore. Later, I followed the group on a hike up a mountain ridge for a stunning view of island-dotted sea stretching to the east and south horizons. After a gravity-powered shower and dinner, everyone relaxed around a roaring fire and listened to Shostak’s animated reading from Almost an Island, a book by Bruce Berger about the peninsula. After dark, I snuggled into my blankets (desert evenings can be cool almost year-round) under a moon so bright it threw black shadows and made my flashlight unnecessary for a late-night bathroom run. The eco-resort lies so far from signs of major civilization, under such clear air, that stars are visible despite the moon.
The next day I elected to ride horses with another woman retreating at El Santuario. Phillipa and I were picked up at the whale-bone gate by Jorge, who lives in Ensenada Blanca with his wife and two kids. The use of locals is obviously a recurring theme here. Jorge brought two nice-looking horses wearing comfortable saddles, and led us by a different route to the same “vista del mar” as the previous day’s hike. Riding proved much easier than walking on the loose scree and in the deep sand, and our guide pointed out various plants along the way, including pitahaya dulce and pitahaya agria, fruits that are, respectively, sweet and sour, and whose early summer ripening has been eagerly anticipated by Baja California residents for centuries. According to Shostak’s reading, in fact, early Spanish missionaries reported that locals liked the dulce version so much that they sometimes tied a string to the fruit before eating it, so they could pull it up and enjoy the experience all over again, and were also known to pick the seeds out of weeks-old human scat. Fortunately, those missionaries introduced to Baja California a variety of other fruits that are readily available today.
Horseback riding seemed the perfect excuse for a massage, provided in my casita by a very competent local woman with six years of experience under her smock. Her touch was perfect, light and soothing where it needed to be, firmer where required, strong hands softened with refreshing oil. A cool breeze through the open windows and the ubiquitous sound of waves lulled me into complete relaxation. I slept even more soundly that night.
Guests at El Santuario can opt for longer hikes, including those that start off-site and explore canyons where waterfalls or ancient cave paintings await, or boat rides to Cosme, a natural tidal hot springs and a great snorkeling spot. Other options are exploring the coastline by panga, snorkeling around the shore or nearby islands, kayaking, fishing and scuba diving. All are dependent on weather conditions, of course, as well as availability of guides and local services, but there are always plenty of options.
Denise and Bill Jones, a veterinarian and psychotherapist in San Luis Obispo, Calif., started El Santuario in 1999 as a way to step out of the rat race they no longer enjoyed. They wanted to get closer to nature and provide a place for others to do so as well; simple living close to nature became their theme. The retreat was designed to blend in with the natural surroundings, built largely with indigenous materials by local laborers, and crafted to minimize use of water. The couple intentionally bought supplies locally where possible and trained and employed residents of the nearby villages. El Santuario is also solar-powered, and while there are lights, hot showers, and refrigeration for the kitchen, there are no phones, televisions, or computers to disturb the tranquility.
“It is a wonderful feeling living off the grid,” Bill says, “and while we’re far from self-sufficient, we’re very self-reliant, with the help of the community. We were thrilled to get away from all the consumption of LA and become part of the Ensenada Blanca community.”
For decades, if not centuries, little has changed in Baja California, but today change looms for even the most remote places on the peninsula. A steadily increasing trickle of visitors is turning into a torrent. FONATUR, an agency founded by the Mexican government to create infrastructure and promote tourism, seems to have a single-minded view of what that tourism should be, and it isn’t places like El Santuario. The agency has invited U.S. firms, primarily from California, to develop choice spots. Even Donald Trump is in on the rush. This creates the very real possibility that every beach in Baja California will, before long, sport rows of high-rise hotels and condominiums with incongruously green golf courses carved in the desert scrub. Heavy equipment recently appeared not far up the beach from El Santuario. A slick Baja publication aimed at potential real estate clients in the U.S. — thousands of Americans already have purchased high-end second homes here — is liberally sprinkled with words like “exclusive” and “luxury.”
But Baja California and places like this retreat offer singular luxuries no development can ever create: That of a peaceful night with only the gentle lullaby of waves falling on your ears. Serene bays of water in shades of blue defying description, punctuated with hazy, pointed islands marching to the horizon. Sunrise over rugged mountains whiskered with stately cardon and wild cholla cacti, and that same sun setting over a different ridge, neither horizon marred by the hand of humans. In between, the music of birds in the air — or on the windowsill — and the sigh of whales and splashes of dolphins in the water.
So come to El Santuario now, while these luxuries are still available, no extra charge.
One of this area’s most popular diversions is whale watching in winter, when lagoons on the Pacific side of Baja California are home to hundreds of gray whale mothers and calves. The baleen whales, which grow up to 50 feet long and 40 tons, migrate here from summer feeding grounds in the far-north Bering and Chukchi seas. Calves are conceived during the previous year’s migration and born in the lagoons during winter after a 13-month gestation. Fifteen feet long and 1500 pounds at birth, the calves nurse on milk that is 53 percent fat, gaining 200 pounds a day and sufficient blubber to travel thousands of miles to the cold, Arctic waters in late spring.
One of the lagoons, Bahia Magdalena, or Mag Bay, is a two-hour drive from El Santuario. You can rent a car or taxi to go there yourself and hire a panga (boat) guide for whale watching, or sign up for whale camp, all-inclusive excursions that feature sleeping in tents on uninhabited islands along the bay, whale-watching by boat several hours each day and from shore other times, kayaking, bird watching, and hiking in the dunes. Blue Waters offers camps as an extension on either end of your stay at El Santuario.
Baja Expeditions, the first outfitter to offer Bahia Magdalena whale-watching tours way back in the 1980s, has whale watch and kayak excursions originating in La Paz, a four-hour van ride away. Guests stay in cabin-style tents with cots. The company also has five-day whale-watching trips out of San Diego to San Ignacio Lagoon, north of Mag Bay.
Sea Kayak Adventures has a Mag Bay whale camp on Isla Santo Domingo, a barrier island with more than 12 miles of beach and wind-sculpted dunes. A typical day begins with coffee at 7 a.m., followed by a hot breakfast, then loading into pangas for whale watching. Grey whales come quite close to the boats, sometimes near enough to touch, and calves often spy-hop, raising their heads high above the water for a good look around. The pangeros, or boat drivers, from nearby Lopez Mateos have an organized rotation for taking out groups, and the best among them have a real eye for spotting surfacing whales and a sense of a respectful distance from the big animals.
After whale watching, lunch is ready, and the afternoon may be spent walking along the beach, hiking the ever-changing dunes, or paddling kayaks to mangrove areas, excellent places to bird watch. You may spy dolphins and sea lions from kayaks or the beach. Happy hour at 5 p.m. is followed by a hearty supper, then socializing or a talk on whales before everyone retires. Sea Kayak offers itineraries with three, four and five days of whale watching, sightings guaranteed. After spending a few days in such close proximity to these whales, so huge and yet so gentle, it is hard to say goodbye. The sights and sounds of the grays remain with you, and the urge to return, just as the whales do, is strong. Perhaps annual migration is a good idea for all of us.
If You Go
El Santuario Eco-Retreat
Baja California Sur, Mexico
Casitas start at $80 per person in high season (Thanksgiving to April 30). One night stay includes three meals per day and snacks. Some guided activities extra. Children and pets welcome.
Sea Kayak Adventures
PO Box 3862
Coeur d’Alene, ID 83816
Magadalena Bay whale-watching wilderness camps, January through March, start at $895, not including airfare. Sea of Cortez kayak tours offered October through April.
2625 Garnet Avenue
San Diego, CA 92109
Delta, Alaska, and Continental Airlines serve Loreto. Rental cars and taxi service available at the airport. Loreto is 700 miles from San Diego on Baja’s paved Highway 1. Passports are now required for travel to Mexico. Bank services (ATM, money exchange) available in Loreto, and most places accept U.S. dollars.
Gray Whale Facts from the American Cetacean Society, San Pedro, California, acsonline.org/factpack/graywhl.htm