LA PLAYITA, MEXICO - The jagged mountains that sweep down to the Sea of Cortez here turn flamingo pink as the sun rises behind them and casts a glorious light over this small fishing village, which sits just outside the resort area of Los Cabos.
Blurry-eyed fishermen are busy loading up their small blue-and-white panga boats with supplies before heading out into the choppy Golfo de California for another day of fishing for the giant marlin that inhabit these waters in great numbers.
On the shore, music fills the air as families and the local priest offer up prayers for the fishermen’s safety in a festive ceremony that dates back centuries.
“Would you like to join the fishermen?” asks a man named Eduardo who approaches unannounced from behind.
“In one of THOSE small boats!?” I reply in a high-pitched, nervous voice.
“Oh, no,” says the man with the sun-baked face who makes a living taking tourists out on whale watching excursions. “I will take you out in a much bigger boat.”
Who can resist such an offer? So a few minutes later, we are heading down the coastal highway (Hwy. 19) that connects La Playita with fun-loving Cabo San Lucas, the Hollywood hideout where stars like Charlie Sheen, Johnny Depp and Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons of the rock group KISS come to escape the media glare. (Cabo San Lucas and nearby San Jose del Cabo are popularly known as Los Cabos).
“We’ll launch from Cabo because the surf there is calmer,” says the guide as we pass romantic hotels and championship golf courses perched high atop dramatic cliffs that drop off into the choppy Baja California peninsula surf.
Left: Whales rule the waters off Los Cabos. Right: You get so close to the whales you can almost touch them.
“Do you know,” says Eduardo, “that Jacques Cousteau once called Los Cabos the ‘aquarium of the world’ because there is so much sea life here.
“The biggest marlin in the world have been caught off Los Cabos and we have the best tuna fishing tournaments in the world,” boasts the energetic guide as we approach the sun-drenched vacation town that fills up every Spring Break with lots of hard-partying, “underage” American teens who can drink legally here.
Eduardo expertly guides his small van down the town’s narrow streets that are lined with lots of brightly painted souvenir shops and “massage” parlours.
Multi-million-dollar yachts (some with helicopters perched on their top decks) fill the harbour and are being admired by patrons hanging out in the open-air bars that line the dock.
“Our boat is waiting for us down here,” says Eduardo, who leads me to a remote area at the end of the pier where the “much bigger boat” he promised to supply looks even smaller than the traditional pangas the fishermen were loading back in La Playita.
Eduardo says the small Zodiac-like craft is “necessary if we are to get close to the whales and keep up with them,” and so soon we cast off and head out to sea.
At the entrance to the harbour, Eduardo slows the powerboat so I can get a better view of El Arco de Cabo San Lucas, the spectacular rock formation that dominates the harbour entrance and is undoubtedly the town’s defining landmark. This postcard-perfect area is known as Land’s End and the crystal-clear waters, rich with sea life, supply divers with some exciting experiences.
As the boat picks up speed and heads for open water, the guide informs me that of the 11 species of whales in the world, eight (minke, Bryde’s, fin, sei, humpback, gray and blue) can be found in the Sea of Cortez during winter months.
“I’ve seen schools of whales — as many as 100 at one time,” says an excited Eduardo, who also says the massive creatures travel more than 5,000 kilometres to reach this Pacific paradise during their 10- to 12-month gestation period.
Suddenly, the guide goes quiet. He cuts the engine. We bob on top of the waves in silence as he scans the surface looking for whale activity.
“Look! Over there — it’s a mommy and baby,” announces Eduardo, who quickly starts the motor, pushes down the throttle and heads off in hot pursuit of two humpback whales.
Left: There. Right: The beaches in this part of Mexico are pristine.
The massive “mommy” and newborn, which is the size of a mini-submarine, gracefully glide through the water, sucking in deep breathes before arching their backs, flipping their massive tails and disappearing below the waves.
When they break the surface again, Eduardo maneuvers the small Zodiac so close that I can almost touch the prehistoric looking creatures.
We follow the pair for about an hour as they patrol the shoreline until Eduardo again yells: “Look, over there!” A massive humpback leaps out of the water and falls back with a mighty splash.
The guide turns the boat and we head in the direction of the performing whale, cameras clicking as the beast lifts and turns its gigantic body in the air with the grace and ease of a ballerina.
It’s one of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever witnessed — and we’re so close we’re getting wet from the whale’s splash.
“They leap out of the water like this to communicate with other whales,” says Eduardo.
I’ve been so focused on the whales, I’ve not noticed that dozens of other small boats have joined us and an annoyed Eduardo says it’s time to return to shore.
“The whales don’t like big audiences,” he grumbles as we head back to the dock.
Later, Eduardo tells me the whale-watching experience is just one of the many outdoor activities offered in this ecological oasis.
“You can snorkel and dive, go zip-lining, play golf, swim with dolphins or go on a camel safari.”
The camel safari is the one suggestion that piques my curiosity and later that afternoon I find myself riding along the Baja Peninsula coast like Lawrence of Arabia atop a two-humped camel admiring the remarkable Mexican outback that borders the Pacific.
The camel safari, which takes place on the sprawling Rancho San Cristobal, includes a nature walk along cactus-lined paths where entertaining guides introduce you to the area’s unique flora and tell you some of the local history.
Unlike other vacation areas of Mexico, Los Cabos has escaped the drug and gang wars that have SO hurt the country’s tourism economy and many expats now call this charming town their year-round home.
At the end of my adventure-filled day, I look out into the Sea of Cortez from my hotel balcony and in the distance I see a jumping whale silhouetted by the setting sun. What a way to end a perfect day.
Air Canada, WestJet and most major Canadian charter airlines offer direct flights to Cabo San Lucas but some only offer seasonal service. / Cabo Adventures can arrange whale watching, camel safaris or other outdoor activities. Go to www.cabo-adventures.com / There’s a full range of accommodation in the Cabo area but may we suggest you try a small, upscale property called Hotel El Ganzo, which is partly owned by actor Charlie Sheen. The 72-room boutique property offers stunning views of the Sea of Cortez and is a haven for international artists. Go to www.elganzo.com / For information Los Cabos, go to www.visitloscabos.traval