Sierra de la Laguna, Baja California Sur, Mexico; December 21-26, 2013

We've spent the last five Christmas holidays at five destinations all lying within the Coral Triangle -- a favorite area of ours for the superb scuba diving, and because we love Southeast Asia in general. Although tempted to return to the region yet again this year, we decided on a change, settling on the Revillagigedo Islands. Commonly referred to among divers as Socorro (after the largest island), the archipelago lies about 250 miles south-southwest of the tip of Baja California.

It was especially nice to set out with the entire family for the first time in a year: Tim & Emily's various activities last summer found us vacationing separately with each of them -- the Indian Himalayas with Emily in July, and Alaska with Tim in September. Another treat was the extremely short flight. Instead of a multi-day adventure just getting to our destination, we hopped one of the many 2½ hour flights that serve tourists heading for a quick holiday in Cabo San Lucas.

The only way to dive the
Revillagigedo Islands is aboard one of a small number of "liveaboard" dive boats that travel to the islands from Cabo. It's an 8-day expedition, which left us with almost a week to fill, so as not to waste any of our two-week holiday. From past trips we knew there was an interesting mountain range in southern Baja, and bit of searching led us to Baja Sierra Adventures. Most appealing was their four-day trek across the Sierra de la Laguna, from the eastern Sea of Cortez side of the Baja Peninsula to the western Pacific side, to which we added a day of mountain biking and canyon exploring.

We were met at the airport by Edgardo, who pretty much is Baja Sierra Adventures, and who would be our guide for the next five days. A former engineer from Mexico City who gave it all up to enjoy the outdoors, Edgardo (photo 3) is personable, energetic, and charismatic, speaks excellent English, and knows the region well. We stayed our first night in the pleasant small town of Santiago, close to the many granite canyons that lead into the Sierra. The next day was spent mountain biking to the canyons (photo 1), visiting hot springs, taking some short hikes, and leaping into hidden pools (photo 2, which doesn't really capture the alarming drop). We finished it up by camping at a family ranch near our trailhead, where a large number of relatives were on hand to celebrate the matriarch's birthday.

The four-day hike across the Sierra was somewhere between a self-sufficient backpacking trip and a full-service trek. We opted to hire a horseman with two horses that carried tents, food, and kitchen gear; we carried everything else. The food was truly gourmet. Edgardo performed miracles over an open fire (photo 3), and tucked into the horse's saddle bags were tequila and red wine to wash everything down.

Catarino, our horseman, is apparently a legend in the Sierra for his hunting skills, taking wild boars frequently and the occasional wild bull, no guns involved. Catarino brought his friend Alfredo along on the trip to do a bit of hunting, though since we weren't especially interested in a pig roast, they curtailed their activities until the last day, when they were descending a different route from ours. Catarino is also known as an expert in natural remedies; he brewed up a variety of forest-ingredient teas during the trip.

The hiking itself was relatively strenuous, with significant elevation changes every day. The terrain ran the gamut from low desert at the start to pine forest up top, with unusual bird and tree life. It somewhat resembled areas of California and the Southwest (photos 4-6), but was very remote -- we didn't see another soul until we neared the trail's end on the Pacific side. The high point of the mountain range is around 7000' (with a lookout tower, photo 7), though the best viewpoint was from the somewhat lower El Picacho (photo 8). Our highest camp was surprisingly cold -- below freezing at night -- not exactly your typical Mexican vacation. We kept warm around the campfire each evening (credits for amazing photo 9 are all Tim's), enjoying fun and interesting conversation with Edgardo.

We ended the hiking trip in Todos Santos, where we're spending a night before heading to Cabo San Lucas. Todos Santos has gotten considerably more touristy since we last passed through in 1991. We'd booked a two-bedroom house near the beach a bit out of town, which turned out to be extremely nice -- perfect for regrouping after the trek and getting ready for the second half of the trip.

Next: We allocated an entire day to get from Todos Santos to Cabo San Lucas (about an hour by car), made a bit more exciting by not having a transportation plan. After a night in Cabo, we'll board the Sea Escape for our 8-day scuba trip to the Revillagigedo Islands.

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