With such an overwhelming array of unique natural attractions, development -- sometimes overdevelopment -- has proven irresistible, to the point where in some parts of Los Cabos and Baja, it's damaging the very natural wonders it's trying to exploit. Take water, for instance, a vital resource and an open question in this desert place. San José del Cabo is blessed with underground aquifers, a reason the Spanish settled there in 1730. Cabo San Lucas is not. For the moment, Cabo shares San José's water supply -- but massive tourism growth and more on the way will overwhelm it. Plans for a desalination plant to slake Cabo's thirst sound great, until you ask the question, what happens to the runoff? Developers say the sea is big enough to absorb a little salt; environmentalists say it could have devastating effects. Cabo's not the only place where increased tourism is coming counter to the natural world. If a proposed hotel development project in Cabo Pulmo becomes reality, some worry it could destroy the park's living coral reef.
Concerns about the sea don't end with pollution, though. Several estimates suggest fishing stocks in the Sea of Cortez have declined 90% since the 1960s, much of that since the 1980s when commercial fishing moved in. Commercial longline fishing brings in hundreds of marlin, sailfish, and dorado daily, as well as endangered sharks and mantas. Gill nets catch and drown sea turtles, sea lions, dolphins, and whales. Indiscriminate shrimp trawling pulls in tons of bycatch that's left to die. And there's still a black market in endangered sea turtles, eaten for purported medicinal qualities.
Pressure on the fish means pressure on the fishermen. Traditional fishing communities, where catch is barely above subsistence level, are dying out. Fishing captains who've led tourists to game catch since the 1940s are having a harder time finding fish. The same goes for local businesses, being squeezed out by U.S. and Canadian developers and giant international retail chains. The less people here are able to survive as they have for generations, the more likely they are to leave their communities to look for work elsewhere, accelerating the kind of social decline mainland Mexico knows all too well.
Baja hotel and restaurant operators are just waking up to the challenge of sustainability, and some are responding with gray-water irrigation systems, auto-off air-conditioning, and the use of organically grown vegetables, in addition to the lip-service reuse-your-towel signs that pass for a conscience in the tourism industry. Much more active are many Baja tour operators and guides who take every contact with visitors as an opportunity to educate them about the fragility of this natural environment and the rewards of good stewardship. Low- or no-impact marine and land tours, catch-and-release big game fishing, and wildlife research tourism have become an important part of Baja's tourism landscape.
If you're concerned about the impact of your vacation, consider the following ways to reduce your footprint and preserve Baja for your next visit. Stay at small hotels, whose infrastructure uses less energy and water per head than big resorts. Turn off air-conditioning when you leave your room, or open the window and don't use it at all. Ask where your fish comes from, and try to only eat seafood from small local fishermen or cooperatives. (And when you're at home, buy only fish that's been sustainably harvested -- programs from the Marine Stewardship Council, www.msc.org, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch, make it easy.) Skip megastores and patronize local businesses, to help Baja stay Baja.
You can learn more about Baja's environment and the challenges facing it through the following organizations: Wildcoast (www.wildcoast.net) is a bilingual environmental action group for the protection of both the Californias; Pro Peninsula (www.propeninsula.org), based in San Diego, is focused on Baja; Eco Alianza Loreto is working to protect Loreto's National Marine Park, while Angels of the Estuary (www.delestero.org) cares for San José's estuary; Grupo Ecologista de Tijuana (www.grupoecologista.com) is working for the reforestation of land around the border and a greening of this polluted city. In addition to the resources for Los Cabos and Baja listed above, see frommers.com/planning for more tips on responsible travel.
Saving the Sharks -- When a permanent ban on shark fishing in Honduras was signed into law in 2010, Peter Wilcox was cheering. The Cabo-based course director at Manta Scuba is the founder of the Shark Legacy Project (www.sharklegacyproject.com), whose research, education, and lobbying work were responsible for the law. Upwards of 70 million sharks are killed worldwide each year for their fins, a billion-dollar industry. But Wilcox and his partners convinced the Honduran government that sharks are more valuable alive, as part of the marine wilderness that draws divers and snorkelers to local tourism. They're hoping to repeat their success in Mexico in the coming years.
In researching this guide, we've made an effort to identify businesses that are ahead of the sustainability curve.
Hotels -- El Angel Azul, La Paz: A conservation pioneer, using local and humanely produced products in the kitchen, biodegradable soap in the laundry room, low-watt bulbs in the light sockets -- all in a 140-year-old building in the city.
Prana del Mar, West Cape: Solar energy, gray-water irrigation, organic cotton towels instead of paper, low-flow showers and toilets, and an organic garden make this yoga retreat an earthly paradise.
Villa del Faro, East Cape: 100% solar-powered, off the grid and built with sustainable materials, with clotheslines for laundry and xeriscaped grounds.
Restaurants -- Flora's Field Kitchen, San José del Cabo: It doesn't get more local than this: Everything on your table was produced right there on the organic farm.
Laja, Valle de Guadalupe: What doesn't come from their own garden comes from sustainable and humane local production; they're known for their organic wines, too.
Mision 19, Tijuana: Cross-border farm-to-table in Baja's first LEED Gold eco-friendly building, with a citrus orchard in the courtyard.
Tour Operators -- Baja Big Fish, Loreto: Owner Pam Bolles is a longtime champion of sustainable fisheries, and that includes her own billfishing trips, which are strictly catch-and-release.
Baja Expeditions, Los Cabos: Environmental activism that puts its money where its mouth is: All profits from Conservation Expeditions go directly to local environmental organizations.
Baja Trek, Los Cabos: Carbon-neutral tours down the peninsula, in a school bus retrofitted to run on recycled vegetable oil -- it's hippie, it's dippy, and it's totally green.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.