Baja: The Great Escape

Sabbatical Adventures in Mexico

By Ben Pundole on 5.19.21

The Mexican state of Baja California Sur (BCS) was just not on my radar. I’m a terrible surfer and Cabo goes against my somewhat evolved and snobby travel beliefs. I am however friendly with an inspiring man called Chip who, for a while, had been mentoring me through a midlife transition. Like many people in travel and hospitality, I’d recently found myself without work and plenty of time, and at the ripe age of 46, I was seeking some sort of mid-pandemic meaning. Chip suggested I attend a two-week “Sabbatical session” at the Modern Elder Academy (MEA) in El Pescadero, in BCS. Chip Conley created, built and sold a successful hotel company, helped guide Airbnb to success, is a New York Times best selling author and, most importantly, was on the board of Burning man. He’d positioned MEA as the world’s first midlife wisdom school. I booked and attended a 2 week session in October last year, benefitting greatly from the wellness, workshops and fascinating guests and, above all, without at the time realizing it, I fell in love with this strange, wild and curious place.

 

The Modern Elder Academy in El Pescadero
The Modern Elder Academy in El Pescadero
Ben Pundole and Chip Conley.
Ben Pundole and Chip Conley.

I had covid earlier in 2020 and my lungs hadn’t fully recovered. Realizing Winter was looming, I hightailed it out of Brooklyn, rented a house in El Pescadero and headed to “The Baja” with the intention of getting healthy, not realizing at the time that healthy in Baja meant so much more than I’d imagined. Firstly, the physical stuff. The running trails are incredible: the hard sand, dust, clay like roads are the best surface imaginable and fooled me into thinking I was a trail professional with views that inspired me to run often and for a long time. But in reality I was slow, very slow, and my lungs weren’t great. But, somehow, I could run for miles in these warm, dry, bouncy, pretty conditions.

A centenary saguaro cactus.
A centenary saguaro cactus.
Bouncy dusty perfect running trails.
Bouncy dusty perfect running trails.

On the subject of pretty conditions… Nature. I’ve finally been called to nature! This was it. I woke up to the yellow, red, azul birds chirping happily outside my windows in the farms below. The sun set over the water at the beach, a five minute walk from the house, and when it did, the mountains behind the house turned purple. For four months of the year, gray and humpback whales bob and dip along the shore line and manta rays can be seen flying out of the waves.There’s a road through ancient cactus fields that leads to a jurassic palm cluster, through a freshwater steam and onto a private-ish beach. Mostly deserted and pure magic and a family of wild horses live there. My friends Chloe and Sloane, 11 and 9, named them Tobacco, Jicama and Hibiscus. The sunsets and the moonrises, the farms and the palm trees, the stars and the light, the birds and the banana trees, a galaxy away from Brooklyn.

Wild(ish) horses at Las Palmas beach. Photo by Misha Jenkins
Wild(ish) horses at Las Palmas beach. Photo by Misha Jenkins

I did all the things, have been doing all the things, because all the things are here. Running the trails, hiking the hikes (Punta Lobos up to the sea lion colony is my favorite), mountain biking through the desert, tennis and boxing. It started as boxing, but my teacher and now friend, Oscar Moncho Neyra, also known as El Peru because of where he is from, insisted on MMA training. I am a lover, not a fighter, so those sessions are pretty hilarious. But, religiously, three times a week at 8am I would be on the beach at Cerritos or at his house boxing, kicking, kneeing and wrestling my way to greatness. Oscar is 38 years old and looks like he is 24 so that on its own was promising. He’s taken me surfing a few less than impressive times. Oscar is also an exceptional chef and, on various occasions, made delicious Peruvian-Japanese dinners for us.

Detox herbs at Cerritos Farmers Market.
Detox herbs at Cerritos Farmers Market.
The sea lions hike in Punta Lobos.
The sea lions hike in Punta Lobos.

To offset the boxing and, for the first time in my life, I embarked on a Pilates journey. It turns out that, according to Tansy, ‘The best Pilates instructor in the world’ lives and teaches in El Pescadero. I have nothing to compare her to, but I agree pilates with Eva Ullman is pretty life changing. She operates from a wellness center called Aureo where her husband Hesed Nejera has a massage studio and their incredible retriever Mozart roams the premises accompanied by Gomez, the fearless cat.

Pilates with olympic athlete Eva Ullmann.
Pilates with olympic athlete Eva Ullmann.
Boxing with Oscar Moncho Neyra, El Peru.
Boxing with Oscar Moncho Neyra, El Peru.

No piece about ‘Healthy Baja’ would be complete without a focus on food. The produce here is incredible, the best tomatoes I’ve ever tasted… and I’ve tasted tomatoes. The peppers, zucchini and the farm fresh everything are incredible. And the fish! Occasionally. I hope everyone’s cutting down after watching Seaspiracy. Buy the yellowtail or the sea mackerel fresh from the fisherman next to Hotel San Cristobal.

The food at Paradero Hotel.
The food at Paradero Hotel.
Coyote Canyon at El Perdido hotel.
Coyote Canyon at El Perdido hotel.

The restaurants are world class. Hierbabuena, a Napa-like restaurant in a farm serves Mexican wines, wood-fired pizzas and a delicious fava bean soup. Coyote Canyon is the restaurant at the best hotel in the area, El Perdido. The kitchen is housed in a vintage airstream, the food is truly exceptional and the service is as good as you’d get in any Michelin rated restaurant. And if you see the owner, Polo Perez (he’ll be wearing a cowboy hat) please buy him a glass of mezcal for me and I’ll pay you back! A nod to Palmar for the best salsa macha (along with Daphne’s from El Chapil), an equal nod to Same Same But Different for the morning smoothies and to Paradero Hotel for the impressive and delicious dinners under the stars. Petit Leon, Augustine’s bakery on the side of the main road is addictive, too addictive. The tangerine loaf, apple braid, gluten-free cookies and sourdough to name a few. 

 

Rosa, our sweet and sexy Baja truck.
Rosa, our sweet and sexy Baja truck.
Tchai, our Brazilian rescue thriving in El Pescadero.
Tchai, our Brazilian rescue thriving in El Pescadero.

La Paz, the capital of the state is often a place where people stay for a night before jumping on a boat to go adventuring in the sea of Cortez. It’s also where swimming with whale sharks will take you to new dimensions and a delicious lunch at the newly opened Baja Club is a must. 

Baja Club Hotel in La Paz.
Baja Club Hotel in La Paz.
Tansy and Tchai by legendary hotelier Carlos Couturier.
Tansy and Tchai by legendary hotelier Carlos Couturier.

There’s something for every price point in Todos Santos and El Pescadero, attracting a healthy mix of travelers and wanderers. Cien Palmas is my new favorite, with a couple of glamping tents and cute casitas. My friend Art’s place, where he’s built 3 Balinese cabanas, a Greek inspired outdoor living room and a church-like casita is a little wacky… And simply perfect! It’s Art who also grows the best tomatoes I’ve ever eaten.

With Polo Perez at El Perdido hotel in El Pescadero.
With Polo Perez at El Perdido hotel in El Pescadero.
Beach art installation by our friend Art Maltby
Beach art installation by our friend Art Maltby

And, lastly, and definitely with respect and admiration, the people. Enough creative characters, surfers, cowboys, farmers, work-from-anywheres, healers, yogis and outliers to push the limits in the most healthy way. The greatest example of creativity here is Teatro Pescadero, which started off as a small stick dome inspired by Buckminster Fuller, built by the now legendary Dillon Porter. Dillon has spent his life coming to Baja, escaped to the place he loves most as soon as lockdown struck New York and created a theatrical venue, incredible shows and a huge buzz in the area. Performances have included The Prophet with the wondrous Mehry Eslaminia performing with her voice of an angel, Speedo Shakespeare, Trippin’ Whitman, Dillon on Dylan and the sold-out smash hit Todos Santos Newsfeed: The Musical, a wild and hilarious tale of Todos Santos and the misfits it attracts. I’ve purged my way through Ayahuasca, sat with the Huicholes for Peyote, cacao-ceremonied with Sandra Swan, breath-worked at Casa Dracula with the Uno Santos community and generally through dedication, an adventurous spirit and, for once in my lifetime… I have never felt better.

 

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