I caught my first glimpse of the Sea of Cortez as my rented Jeep rounded the corner to enter the farming and fishing village of La Ribera on Baja’s East Cape.
The sea was turquoise.
A pod of humpback whales breached in the distance.
My guide was Cecilia Fischer, a Baja native who works with me as the WiLDCOAST Cape Region Coordinator.
“We’re almost to Cabo Pulmo,” she said as we left the pavement and headed down a rutted dirt road to the tiny fishing village that proudly abuts the only coral reef in the Sea of Cortez.
I was in southern Baja to give a talk to residents of Cabo Pulmo and the Cape Region to update them on our efforts to conserve the reef, a marine protected area, and the coastline that surrounds it.
A Spanish company, Hansa Urbana, has proposed building a new city larger than Cancun in the empty desert just next to Cabo Pulmo National Park.
If the project is built out, conservation biologists and marine ecologists fear the reef will not sustain the impacts that are sure to come.
We arrived in the ramshackle hamlet of Cabo Pulmo and made our way to the Cabo Pulmo Resort.
“I first came here years ago,” said Cole, the operator of the Resort’s Coral Reef Restaurant. “The reef was dead and the fish were gone. But now, diving the reef is incredible.”
Back in 1999, local fishermen and the Mexican government brokered a deal to ban all fishing around the reef. The fishermen switched from harvesting the locally dwindling supply of fish to taking tourists to dive the reef.
More than ten years later, researchers from Scripps announced the results of their decade long monitoring project in Cabo Pulmo.
The population of fish or “biomass” has increased 460 percent.
Cabo Pulmo, they declared, was "the world’s most robust marine reserve.”
“We never used to see whale sharks here,” Cole said. “Now this is one of the few places in the Sea of Cortez we can dive with them.”
Marine biologists and conservationists from around the world now visit Cabo Pulmo to learn about how Mexican fishermen saved the reef which was named an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Last fall the renowned ocean explorer Sylvia Earle came to Cabo Pulmo to dive and named the 18,000-acre Cabo Pulmo National Park a “Hope Spot.”
After meeting with the friendly residents of Cabo Pulmo, Cecilia and I returned to San Jose del Cabo. The sprawling city is a world apart from the desert solitude and emerald brilliance of the East Cape.
The next day I made my way through the bustle and traffic of Los Cabos on my way to Todos Santos. My wife Emily and I lived in the artsy and historic village on the Pacific Coast 18 years earlier while we were finishing up writing up our dissertations on Baja's gray whales and the fishing folk who make their living from whalewatching.
Todos Santos is still one of my favorite towns in Baja with great food, excellent surf, historic buildings, and art galleries.
I caught a few waves at a beach south of town. The surf was 3-4 feet, the water was 70 degrees.
On the outskirts of Todos Santos I met up with Jim Pickell, the CEO of Baja.com, who has an office in a renovated historic brick building.
“Baja is back,” he said. “Tourism is up and people are excited to come to Baja and rediscover the peninsula.”
At Café La Esquina in Todos Santos, an airy and friendly neighborhood hangout on the west side of town, I ordered a veggie panini and a carrot-beet-spinach-apple smoothie from Paula Angeloni, a local surfer.
“I came to Todos Santos to surf,” said Angeloni, who is originally from Uruguay and moved to Mexico to study marine biology in La Paz. “But now I’m raising my daughter here.”
That evening I had dinner at La Dolce restaurant in San Jose del Cabo. The owner Ramiro Rivas, a native of Mexico City, moved to Baja more than 11 years ago.
When Ramiro is not working at his lovely Italian restaurant just off the plaza in San Jose, he loves to visit Cabo Pulmo. “I love Cabo Pulmo,” he said. “It is so beautiful.”
Over the next couple of days I greeted the sunrise each morning while surfing Costa Azul. The waves were small, but the water was warm and crystal clear.
At the San Jose del Cabo Farmer’s Market, I ate the best pizza in Baja and was delighted with the quesadilla like vampiros stuffed with portabella mushrooms.
I bought beautiful abalone jewelry for Emily from Victor de la Vega. Besides making unique and original jewelry, Victor transforms driftwood into art.
“The farmer’s market started out pretty unofficially,” said Jim Tolbert of Baja Books and Maps, who hosts a stall in the market each Saturday with his wife Judy. “But now we’re a nonprofit. Thousands of people come here each week during the season.”
On my last evening, Cecilia and I drove out to the East Cape again. Our destination was the Crossroads County Club at Vinorama where owner Joan Hafenecker has created an impeccable oasis with an incredible view of the coast and savory food.
After giving a talk to a collection of local residents and visitors from Los Cabos, I settled down to a dinner of Asian stir-fry with pasta. When an American celebrity strolled in with his wife, no one even batted an eye.
People were too busy watching the sunset, looking for humpback whales, and absorbing the stars as they settled into Baja’s never ending nighttime sky.
Another perfect evening on the Cape.
Serge Dedina is the Executive Director of WiLDCOAST an international conservation team that conserves coastal and marine ecosystems and wildlife. He is the author of Wild Sea and Saving the Gray Whale.