Sunday, March 14, 2010

Loreto to Calgary - via Los Cabos!

The subject of travelling to and from Loreto is a source of frequent discussion among those of us who live and/or visit there. This week I tried out a new option that is gaining in popularity among western Canadians, who make up a sizable proportion of home owners in Loreto Bay.

Westjet is a relatively new Calgary based airline that has been aggressively expanding their routes to sun destinations in recent years, after beginning as a low cost western regional carrier. They have a daily service to the San Jose del Cabo airport from several cities including Calgary.

Currently in Loreto, there is only one international connection – Alaska/Horizon flies between Los Angeles and Loreto 4 times a week in a small commuter jet. Because of the limited number of seats available on this size of plane, these flights have been fully booked more or less since Christmas and there are few seats available until well into the spring season this year. Due in part to the scarcity of seats, the airfare is high – $375 for the LA to Loreto leg and almost $1200 return from Calgary.

This situation has caused resourceful travellers to look for alternative flight plans including La Paz and Cabo as alternative arrival points and then travelling to Loreto from there. When I was looking at options about a month ago for a mid-season visit back to Calgary I found a return flight from Cabo direct to Calgary for a total of $680.00 – almost half of the Alaska/Horizon fare and not requiring an overnight stopover.

Anyone who has travelled through LAX (Los Angeles airport) knows that it was not the highlight of their trip – it is huge, busy, always under renovation without seeming to improve the facilities, and the current security concerns have only added to the stress and discomfort of travel through this major international hub. Due to scheduling changes at Alaska Airlines a couple of years ago, it is no longer possible for most of us in western Canada to make connections to or from Loreto in one day from our departure point. This adds much more time, additional expenses for Hotels and meals and the necessity of going through more security screening and all the frustrations that now entails!

Therefore, the opportunity to travel direct to Calgary in 4 ½ hours without the delays, expense and frustration of the Alaska/Horizon alternative was very appealing – particularly at half the price! However, the Airport at Cabo is over 500 km south of Loreto and so the drive there had to be figured into the itinerary as well.

Perhaps a bit of geography is called for here, for those of you not familiar with travelling in the Baja. There are actually two communities located at the southern tip of the peninsula which are referred to collectively as "Los Cabos" (or The End")– Cabo San Lucas, which most people refer to as “Cabo” and San Jose del Cabo, a smaller (I think prettier) town with more colonial influenced architecture which is located over 30 km east of “Cabo”. The international airport for the whole “Cabo area” is located about another 20 km east of San Jose.

The departure time for my flight north was 4:15 pm so I was sure that I could drive there that day from Loreto, with a good early start, but I also had to decide which route to take. The Highway south from Loreto climbs through the Sierra Giganta mountain range then leaves the coast and travels across a high desert plateau towards the center of the peninsula just over 100 km to a “T” intersection at the town of Insurgentes. If you are heading to the west coast for whale watching, you would turn north at this intersection and pass through Insurjentes (a small dusty town with nothing in particular to recommend it) and then head west again when you leave the town to get to Magdalena Bay.

Heading south, I turned left at the intersection and continued on for about 30 km to the small city of Constitucion which is a fairly well developed business and commercial center servicing the commercial market garden industry in the area. (When we first started living in Loreto about 4 or 5 years ago, before there was the current choice and variety of food stores, we would drive an hour and a half each way to Constitucion to shop at the “Super Lay” supermarket, thank goodness those days are over!)

After leaving Constitucion it’s just over 200 km south to La Paz, the state capital of Baja Sur. This is a true city of over 120,000 people and with the recent additions of Walmart and Home Depot to the already existing collection of “big box”, department and specialty stores, La Paz has become the first choice for most shopping expeditions from Loreto in search of the “extras” that are impossible to find at home. About 30 km south of La Paz the highway forks, with one road going to Todos Santos, enroute to Cabo San Lucas, and the other sign posted for Los Barriles, also known as the east coast road, which ended up in San Jose del Cabo.

When I was planning this trip, my first inclination was to take the east road because the airport was east of San Jose and it seemed clearly the most direct route. I have travelled both ways, through Todos Santos from Cabo about a half a dozen times and once by the east road several years ago. But the route through Todos Santos is by far the most well travelled, and the four lane twinning is now completed on almost half the highway from the fork through to Cabo with new work underway on the remainder. Most people I spoke to about it in Loreto, recommended taking that route, and while it would no doubt be faster most of the way to Cabo, I was concerned about the time it would take to travel the 33 km between there and San Jose plus the additional 15 or 20 km beyond to the airport. Traffic between these two destinations is the heaviest of anywhere south of Tijuana and road construction can make things even worse.

The “knock” against the east road was that it was slow going as it travels through some mountainous areas and twists and turns as it climbs up and down. My recollection of my first trip on this road wasn’t that bad, but it was several years ago and I wasn’t concerned about the travel time – which was my main focus now, with no flexibility in the flight departure time. So, I decided to go with my first instinct, and I was glad I did, although there were several stretches where 50 or 60 kmph was about as fast as possible with the switchbacks in the road, there was almost no other traffic (due I suspect to the improvements in the new highway to Cabo) and so I travelled the 145 km from the fork to the airport in an hour and forty-five minutes arriving at the airport at 12:45, exactly 6 hours from departing Loreto Bay to cover the 520 km.

Up until now, I haven’t mentioned the fact that I had a companion with me on this trip. Dorlene, a Home Owner in Loreto Bay, had guest who was leaving on the same Westjet flight the following day. She had heard “on the grapevine” that I was driving down, and so when she asked me if I could give her friend Deb a ride - I was very glad to have the company and we made plans accordingly. I said that I wanted to make an early start, and Deb agreed to be waiting on the south road into Loreto Bay at 6:30, I picked her up at 6:45, and after a brief farewell with her host and friend, we were on our way.

Deb proved to be a great travelling companion, which in my case, I’m embarrassed to say, means she is a very good listener! We talked mainly about Mexico in general and Loreto in particular, with several stories about life before Mexico thrown in for good measure. Good company and conversation made the time and miles fly and probably contributed to our excellent elapsed time for the trip.

When we arrived at the airport I found Terminal 3 (yes, there are 3 terminals!) and parked in a loading zone to check on my flight’s departure time and status. The agent at the Westjet desks told me that they were already accepting bags for check-in, even though the flight wasn’t boarding for over 3 hours. So I went back to the car and got my suitcase and checked in, which also required me to be escorted around the outside of the terminal to a back door where I was lead back into the arrivals area and to the immigration area where my FM3 was stamped and I got the appropriate travel document. The agent and I then retraced our steps back to the check-in where I got my boarding pass and I was back in the car and heading out of the airport in half an hour.

In the meantime, Deb had been fending off the airport parking guards and was just about going to have to drive around and pick me up later when I finally returned. We then found our way into the center of “old” San Jose where we had a delicious lunch at a sidewalk restaurant on the town square before I dropped her off at her Hotel a few blocks away for her overnight stay before she boarded her flight 24 hours later.

The flight was full of happy Canadians returning home from their holidays, many after staying in one of the dozens of time share resorts in the area, and, although we were a bit delayed by turbulent headwinds most of the flight back, we arrived in Calgary just before 9:00 pm. After a blessedly quick and almost courteous

Immigration process and reasonably efficient bag retrieval, I emerged into the welcome of the Calgary airport about 15 hours after leaving Loreto that morning – a long day, but no comparison to the ordeal of my previous trips north by air!

Next weekend I will post a bit about my return trip and perhaps some highlights of my shopping expedition in La Paz where I plan to overnight on the way back home to begin “Living Loreto” again.