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San Ignacio

The food is great. The scenery? Breathtaking. But it’s those cute baby whales that you’ll never forget 

A thousand miles long, Baja’s Highway 1 snakes from the U.S.-Mexico border to the touristed beaches of Cabo San Lucas. Along the way the two-lane carretera slices a path between the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez, past desert plains and palm-shrouded valleys, even the occasional cave painting. In the center of the peninsula, where date groves sprout from the desert, you’ll find the colonial town of San Ignacio. From here you can hike the surrounding mesas, drift along a languid river, and sample the seafood for which the region is famous. It’s also the last town north of Laguna San Ignacio, where gray whales migrate each winter to give birth before returning to the Arctic. Floating in a little skiff as you pet a 4,000-pound baby cetacean, its mother looking on, you’ll understand why people say they’ve been forever changed by the experience.

San Ignacio sits in a small fertile valley dotted with colonial remnants from the 18th century. There are rooms available on the main drag into town, but Ignacio Springs Bed and Breakfast (615-154-0333; $65-$150) offers the most hospitable digs. Situated beside the pueblo’s namesake river and shaded by a dense palm grove, Ignacio Springs’ casitas and canvas yurts are simple without being spare. Terry and Gary Marcer, the Canadian expat owners, host a communal breakfast in the open-air dining room from which you can watch people paddling the river in kayaks provided by the B&B. By eight o’clock, touring companies begin picking up guests who’ve booked a trip to the nationally protected lagoon 42 miles southwest. (During the bumpy two-hour drive, you stop at a salt marsh that looks like a vast pool ringed with snowlike drifts.) Only a small number of skiffs, or pangas, are allowed on the water at a time, and they are easily outnumbered by the gray whales. One theory holds that pangas provide cover from predatory orcas, but what has left even researchers confounded is how eagerly the whales seek contact with people. They often approach the boats, the mamas nudging their calves close enough for you to stroke their skin, smooth and rubbery with patches of barnacles and the occasional scar from brushes with killer whales.

It’s a half-hour walk from your yurt to San Ignacio’s central plaza, a laurel-shaded park across from the Misión San Ignacio de Kadakaamán. The ornate white church, accented with bronze-tinted lava-block columns, was established by the Jesuits in 1733, completed by the Dominicans in 1786, and features a citrus and rose garden planted atop a former burial ground. A couple of hours to the east are the more than 7,000-year-old paintings at Sierra de San Francisco, where 30-foot-tall images of deer, whales, and squid dance across cave walls. You can buy a permit to enter the site—as well as see an impressive rendering of a pre-Columbian painting—at the tiny Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (615-154-0222), a museum next to the church in San Ignacio. For lunch, get a sidewalk table at the cavernous Restaurant Bar La Mision de Kadakaaman (615-154-0457), where massive plates of shrimp are prepared with the local Kadakaamán wine. Down the undulating walkway, past a modest grocery store, is a stand that sells homemade date bread, a San Ignacio specialty—and a reputed aphrodisiac. Casa Lereé (615-154-0158; $40-$75), a blue adobe house built around 1885, serves as a small inn and bookstore-gallery. Owner Jane “Juanita” Beard Ames, who has spent years collecting photographs and oral histories of the town, provides free hand-drawn maps that detail nearby hiking trails. It takes less than an hour to stroll through most of the pueblo, making stops to watch tortillas being pressed at the women’s cooperative and to snack on a bag of Tostilocos (a spicy mix of chips, chamoy, Clamato, pickled pork skin, and cucumbers). On the east end of town is the colorful cemetery, where musicians wander through as if it were a restaurant. Or head north to walk among the palm groves and orchards surrounding the reservoir.

Come nightfall, a blanket of stars settles over San Ignacio. Baja is known for great food—think rich fist-size clams, potent ceviche, and crispy fish tacos—and even the tiny town offers plenty of good options. Trace the Milky Way as you linger over wine and steamed fish (pescado papillot) beneath the brick arches at Restaurant Bar Rene’s (615-154-0196). The gigantic glistening cistern behind the seafood restaurant was installed long ago by the Spanish. Northwest of town the restaurant at Rice & Beans (615-154-0283; $25-$65), an RV park and hotel, has the area’s liveliest nightlife scene. Snowbirds and locals file in for margaritas that will make your hair stand on end, barbecued shrimp, carne asada, and a jumping playlist that blends American and Mexican classics. But the best meal is probably back at the hotel at Ignacio Springs, where guests fill up on heaping servings of roasted beets, pork, and line-caught wahoo before soaking in the warm river, the sound of chirping crickets all around them.

San Ignacio in 60 Seconds
2,200. Settled: 1728. When to go: Late December to late March. Best route: Angelenos routinely make the 12-hour trek down Highway 1, but you can also fly to Loreto and drive 150 miles north to San Ignacio. Pack: Cash. San Ignacio has no ATM or bank. Weather: Summerlike temperatures last all year, but avoid hurricane season (May through November). Side trip: It’s a 45-minute drive to Santa Rosalía, a French-built town with a church designed by Gustave Eiffel and, better yet, bacon-wrapped hot dogs across the street.

Photograph by David Maung