Swimming with barking sea lions in the Sea of Cortez felt unreal.
It was one of the highlights of a two-week trip to Baja California Sur, Mexico.
Our group of European friends departed by motorboat from Playa Balandra, 14 miles north of La Paz, heading for Isla Espiritu Santo, an uninhabited natural reserve protected by Unesco.
Before diving into the water outfitted with goggles, snorkel and flippers, we were briefed on how to safely keep those noisy creatures happy.
We were not to approach their rocks, as that could be mistaken for invasion of territory. No eye contact. And if they came to us, which they’d often playfully do, we were not to move closer or touch them. They sometimes mistake human legs for toys, we were warned, and like to bite on them.
So I followed instructions and watched from a reasonable distance, entranced as they pirouetted.
Our windy ride continued, past canyons and rock formations, untouched inlets and sandy beaches, until we reached Baja Camp, a safari-like luxury lodging comprising five double tents and a main living quarters, where margaritas and pasta are commonly served to guests at the otherwise deserted bay.
We were only visiting for the day from our base on the Tourist Corridor, an 18-mile stretch along the sea between the towns of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo.
Luckily, Italians love their compatriots and owner Andrea Tamagnini gave me (and the 12 others on the tour) permission to step foot on the camp.
Tents were simple -- a double bed, side tables and a gas lamp -- yet very nice, with a little water basin by the entrance to rinse off the burning-hot sand. A typical stay for overnighters includes kayaking around the island in the morning, a free afternoon, drinks while watching the sun set over the sea, followed by a home-cooked dinner.
To cap a perfect day, on our way back, happily exhausted by the trip, sea and sun, we stopped yet again by “Sunset da Mona Lisa,” our new favorite local restaurant.
It was the third time in a week we returned to watch the sunset from a cliff on the water. Al dente linguini with clams was followed by the catch of the day cooked in a thick salt crust. I’m glad we weren’t put off by the restaurant’s name; we would have missed one of the best parts of our trip.
On less adventurous days we would sip pina coladas on the beach by our hotel or in one of the many swimming pools facing the Sea of Cortez. Though it was forbidden to bring drinks to the pool area, everyone did. A live-and-let-live atmosphere pervaded the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar -- as well as everywhere else in Baja.
The one downside of our lodging was that we could not swim in the sea. The breaking waves in front of the hotel were so strong that it was too dangerous to get in and out of the water. So in the afternoons, past the worst sun hours, we would go in search of alternative beaches or visit nearby towns.
We couldn’t believe our eyes when we reached Cabo Pulmo, at the edge of the only live coral reef on North America’s west coast. We spent the day on a stretch of deserted white sand; the only live creatures we encountered were majestic pelicans, tirelessly nose-diving into the water in search of lunch.
For entertainment, we hung out on Acapulquito beach, for so-called beginner surfers, though the waves seemed huge to me. There were families, hippies, kids and friendly dogs. We rented boards and found a teacher who patiently instructed us in the surfer’s art.
Unlike central and southern Mexico, where you’ll find Mayan and Aztec remains, there are no ancient ruins in Baja California. Yet time seems to have stopped in San Jose del Cabo, a charming town with an Old Mexico feel to it.
A long street of small stores ends in the main square, Plaza Mijares, defined by the presence of the Parroquia San Jose, where residents gather on Sundays for Mass. Behind the plaza lies the Art District, which has in recent times become the cultural center of Los Cabos.
Very different is the opposite end of the Corridor, Cabo San Lucas. It’s hard to imagine the backwater it once was, before sport fishing and the building of the transpeninsular highway drew hordes of tourists.
But the crowded, boat-filled marina, surrounded by shopping malls and luxury boutiques, is worth a tour and maybe a night out, its denizens exuding the warmth found all around Baja.
An afternoon sampling tequilas to bring home ended with a water-taxi ride to Land’s End, the southern-most tip of the California Peninsula. Here the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez, with more fish species than days in a year.
United Airlines flies nonstop from New York to San Jose del Cabo. For more information: Baja Camp: http://www.bajacamp.com. Sunset da Mona Lisa: http://sunsetmonalisa.com. Sheraton Hacienda del Mar: http://www.starwoodhotels.com/sheraton. Cabo Pulmo: http://www.cabopulmopark.com.
(Lili Rosboch writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are her own.)
Muse highlights include John Mariani on wine and Scott Reyburn on auctions.