When you think of a Mexico vacation, you think of sun, sand and sea…but did you know that Mexico has 29 total UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization ) World Heritage sites? (That’s more than any other country in the Americas.) And… Did you know Mexico has 55 national parks and 68 preserves? The country distinguishes nine types of nationally protected areas including national marine parks and the biosphere reserves notable for their vast acreage and pristine ecosystems.
Long before eco-travel was trendy, it was a significant part of Mexico’s landscape — and these days, it’s in the spotlight. In the first installment of this column I covered major East Coast eco-attractions for your Mexico vacation. In this column, we celebrate the eco-travel attractions of Mexico’s West Coast and Baja Peninsula.
No less an authority than the great Jacques Cousteau once paid Baja Sur’s Sea of Cortez a marvelous compliment. He called it “the world’s aquarium,” because it harbors more than 270 species of tropical fish, as well as dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, and 10 different whale species. Nearly 250 islands, islets and coastal areas, many of them remote and uninhabited, harbor approximately 200 species of birds and 700 species of plants. There are bird sanctuaries on Rasa Island and at the San Jose Estuary in Los Cabos.
The capital of Baja Sur is La Paz, a small but ever-growing seaside town with relatively inexpensive lodgings and great family beaches just to the north. On a Mexico vacation here, visitors on can swim with sea lions on the islands of Espiritu Santo just 20 minutes offshore, or visit Magdalena Bay three hours’ drive away. While famed as a resting/breeding spot on the winter migration route of the whales, “Mag Bay” offers other spring/summer activities including sea kayaking and sand dune hiking.
More than 200 miles up the Baja Peninsula’s eastern coast is Loreto, a small town with a strong Spanish Mission heritage. Nearby the town is the newly formed, Green Globe certified resort community of Loreto Bay. The main aquatic attraction in this area is San Ignacio Lagoon, a renowned — and very closely safeguarded — whale sanctuary that’s also home to bottlenose dolphins and black turtles. The lagoon is part of the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve. An hour-plus drive from the lagoon is the picturesque town of San Ignacio, graced by the church of the San Ignacio de Loyola — a beautifully restored reminder of the Spanish mission days. San Ignacio is known as the “gateway” to the Sierra San Francisco cave paintings because it runs tours up the mountain to view the prehistoric cave art.
Further down the Pacific Coast one enters Sinaloa, the unexpected avian hotspot of todo Mexico. The sprawling, touristy port city of Mazatlan hosts a huge annual bird festival every January, and the Mazatlan-Durango Highway is a world-renowned birding corridor. Though Mazatlan is famous for its beaches, nature lovers place equal importance on its proximity to the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains. One of the greatest conservation triumphs in recent years is the establishment of the Tufted Jay Preserve in El Palmito Ejido. Developing low-impact tours and activities in the area is one of the focuses of the Mexican conservation organization Pronatura Noroeste A.C.
As far as most people are concerned, Acapulco’s history doesn’t stretch further back than the days of Frank Sinatra, Weismuller and the Rat Pack. However, Hollywood is only the latest of countless cultures to put its stamp on Acapulco over the ages. Within the city there’s the circa-1600s San Diego Fort housing Acapulco’s historic museum; and the fascinating House of the Mask Museum, wherein a collection of 1600 masks provides a glimpse into ancient civilizations like the Olmec and Nahua. Less than an hour outside the city is Tehuacalco, an archaeological zone that was discovered in 2006 and opened to the public in 2009. The site encompasses an ancient ball court and a temple thought to date back to 750 BC. Looking forward as well as honoring the past, the state of Guerrero (where Acapulco is located) will open a new eco-tourism park called Cerro del Huixteco in 2009.
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Lena Katz lives on the Left Coast and writes about tropical islands, beach clubs and food, but her heart belongs to NYC.