Desert Mexico

San Jose del Cabo Estuary

San José del Cabo Estuary

While exploring Baja Sur's magical freshwater wetlands, I find the telltale signs of development and tourism spilling into a protected, but fragile ecosystem.


t’s lush, dripping with dew, green everywhere. Dragonflies whir in the heat, and thousands of freshwater fish dart in the still water below. The San Jose del Cabo estuary is overflowing with water as the last of the high-elevation snow and rain from the Sierra de la Laguna mountains spills into the coastal oasis.

That freshwater has risen so high that it floods into the massive adjacent and now abandoned Holiday Inn property. But the thin strip of space between the estuary and the Holiday Inn are one of the rare public access points to the beach, so locals have placed sandbags and wooden planks as a sort of stepping-stone path through the flooded water. 

The way those stepping stones snake beneath the palms and between the vivid lavender blooming water hyacinth is thrilling. Life is everywhere. 

A pair of White Ibis are wading through the hyacinths, and beyond them, freshwater turtles rest on fallen branches. I continue along the stepping stones until I step off, onto the beach, which gives me access to the edge of the estuary.

Cape Spiny-tailed Iguana at the San Jose del Cabo Estuary

Cape Spiny-tailed Iguana at the San Jose del Cabo Estuary


very once in a while,” our rental manager had explained, “the estuary breaks, and all the water flows into the ocean at once. The thing is, it is so loud, you can hear it all over the city. It just rumbles and shakes the whole place.” 

The abandoned Holiday Inn is the last hotel along the strip before the protected estuary begins, but the fact that this hotel is the sole resort casualty of the pandemic means there is no trouble for the area’s tourism. In fact, this abandoned property is soon to be converted into a plush Bellagio.

San Jose del Cabo is considered the more mellow of the two large-ish cities in the Cabo Pulmo region, the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula. But the line of hotels and developments along the beach, almost continuously blocking the view of the ocean for miles, is not a good look.

The hotels are reminiscent of Las Vegas strip casinos or Dominican Republic strip all-inclusives, all having nearly identical open air lobbies, and small rooms. The hotels differentiate themselves with different stylistic details that beg for their audience to see them as the newest and hippest. There is a hotel for every poor taste.

Jane tells me she had overheard a wedding party that had stayed at one of the beachside hotels. “One of the ladies in the group was telling her friends how great a trip it was. She told her friends, ‘We didn’t have to go anywhere.’”

The lines of hotels along the San Jose del Cabo beach turn into a similar line of condominium resorts along the half-hour drive to Cabo san Lucas. While the beaches of the Baja Peninsula are all public, this part of Mexico imitates California in allowing the hotels and resorts to not only block views of the ocean, but block easy access to almost all of the beaches, creating a sense of fashionable exclusivity and privileged restrictiveness for the foreign guests.

Erythrostemon pannosus flowering in the San Jose del Cabo Estuary

Erythrostemon pannosus flowering in the San Jose del Cabo Estuary


he problem with those resorts along the coast,” our rental manager explained, “is that there is not really a lot to do out there, away from the city. You can’t really get around those places by car, but you need a golf cart to get around the property. But then you need a car to get out of those resorts and get anywhere. In reality, the type of people who stay at those places aren’t really interested in Baja. They don’t want to try the fresh fish or explore the desert. They just sit there and that’s what those places are for.”

Perhaps it’s extremely unlikely, at least in our world’s present views on the intersection of coastal preservation and tourism, but I can’t help but to imagine a system of incentives and laws that slowly shed the beaches of all of these hotels, and even the resorts to the West. That in their place, the natural coastal vegetation—Cape Sweetbush, Yellow Trumpet Flower bushes, Organ Pipe Cactuses and Palo Verde—would be encouraged, and the busy road connecting these hotels would be upgraded to a car-free boardwalk.

The other city, Cabo San Lucas, sits on the Pacific Ocean, and is nearly always windy and mostly unswimmable due to nasty, life-threatening currents. But San Jose del Cabo is inside the Sea of Cortez, and so its ocean waters are nearly always calm. Were the city to eliminate its beach hotels and resurrect its natural coastal vegetation, San Jose del Cabo would become an enchanting urban beach city.

While we stay in San Jose del Cabo with our Portland family friends, the city puts on a weekend of free music—the San Jose Jazz Festival—bringing in global talent to play in the Plaza de Pescador adjacent to the hotel zone. But again, knowing that great venues produce great music, I can’t help but imagine the same open-air concert free of those beach hotels.

Zebra-tailed Lizard at the San Jose del Cabo Estuary

Sarcostemma blooming in the inland thickets of the estuary.


’ve made my way to the beach, which features huge fenced off sections to protect the nesting grounds of Least Terns. These terns are tiny, about nine inches long. On those tiny wings, they migrate from the coasts of the Caribbean and the Atlantic states of South America to North America to breed. But I can see them dive-bombing for fish on the estuary. A little joy for me, as I have this life-long love-affair for small terns.

About twenty-thousand Least Terns remain in the wild, but there is increasing worry that they are becoming a threatened species. These huge fenced off portions of the beach adjacent to the estuary, where the terns feed on freshwater fish, is encouraging, but it also suggests the threats of letting that hotel zone spill right out onto this precious ecological zone.

The next morning, I wake early to beat the sunrise, and the heat. This time, instead of hugging the coastline, I head inland by walking down Boulevard Antonio Mijares in order to access the estuary further inland.

When I get to that access point, I realize that there is a labyrinth of trails, all intersecting and interconnecting and spilling out at the edge of the water. These trails give me an immediate, almost urban access to the native plants of Los Cabos, and of course the birds, butterflies and insects.

I am hoping to see a Belding’s Yellowthroat, a species of bird which exists almost exclusively in this estuary. I know they don’t live on the beach-side of the estuary, but deeper inland.

Because water levels are high, many of the sandy pathways are inundated with water, and I find myself jumping from dry-point to dry-point. Lost in the pre-morning joy of all the flowering plants and the still water, I am stunned when I realize there is another human in the estuary. Caught off-guard, I trip over a tree stump, and immediately this other human starts giggling at my expense.

Zebra-tailed Lizard at the San Jose del Cabo Estuary

Zebra-tailed Lizard at the San Jose del Cabo Estuary


hat giggling - out of this gaunt face with a bloodshot eye, makes me realize immediately something is up. In broken English, he says, “There are some big tortugas that way. They are huge.” 

He wants to show them to me. But again, I already know there are no large freshwater turtles in this part of Mexico. I thank him and move on as quickly as I can.

I continue to walk inland, following the water boundary, and then, in a particularly wet patch, I find a number of dragonflies and decide to photograph them for a while. I put my pack on a dry patch of land, and brave the water, scooting along on my knees and my left hand, with my camera aloft in my right.

I feel a shadow come into view on the glassy water. The man with the bloodshot eye.

I stand up immediately, my shoes filling with water. As fast as possible I move toward my pack, about twenty feet away. “What are you doing?” he asks.

I’m putting my pack on my back. “The dragonflies. Do you see them?” I say, backing up.

Blooming Water Hyacinth in the San Jose del Cabo Estuary

Blooming Water Hyacinths in the San Jose del Cabo Estuary.


e doesn’t. But he says, “I don’t know what I see. I see things. I have a problem with drinking, and it makes me have visions. It makes me see things that are not there!”

It’s about twenty minutes until sunrise. What local would be in the estuary at this time of day unless they slept here last night?

“Then you should stop drinking!” I say, tightening my hipbelt.

“I don’t drink more than once a week,” he says, naming a Mexican malt liquor brand. “I see things that aren’t there,” he repeats, “and it makes me a little crazy you know.” 

Approaching me, he says, “can you spare a few pesos?” And that’s when I light out of there like you can’t believe.

Green-eyed Fly

Abundant insect life, including these hovering flies, abounds in the amphibious world of the estuary.


ow I am much further inland, and after the encounter, my heart starts beating normally again and I refocus on my search for the Belding’s Yellowthroat.

But as I continue to walk, I find that bulldozers have pushed sand from a local construction site into the estuary, maybe even to the point of increasing the size of their property. Could this really be possible?

The word estuary is actually a fairly broad definition for an ecosystem, because any number of places where the river meets the sea: bays, lagoons, inlets, fjords, and deltas, are all estuaries. But the San Jose estuary is an enclosed freshwater estuary that only meets the sea when it fills so high, it breaks the sand barrier and floods into the Sea of Cortez.

Toadstool Hoodoos in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

The pastel-hued San Jose Cemetary is adjacent to the estuary.


hat type of ecosystem is absent anywhere else in Baja Sur, but it is critical for conservation. The Baja California Peninsula serves as an important corridor of the Pacific Flyway, for migratory birds traveling between their breeding grounds in North America and their wintering grounds in Central and South America.

But its never just about the birds. An estuary, isolated by its location on a 1000-mile long peninsula, and one of the driest, hottest deserts in the world, is a magnifier of unique species. Unique insects, unique flowering plants, unique everything.

The San Jose estuary is protected via the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty that was adopted in 1971 in Ramsar, Iran. The primary objective of the Ramsar Convention is to promote the conservation and wise use of wetlands, recognizing their ecological importance and the essential role they play in supporting biodiversity and providing vital ecosystem services. 

Under the Ramsar Convention, member countries commit to designating and protecting wetlands of international importance, known as Ramsar Sites. These sites are chosen based on their ecological significance. Ramsar Sites are intended to be representative examples of different types of wetlands worldwide.

White Pocket cliffs in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

A juvenile White Ibis preens in the shade of a flooded palm forest in the San Jose del Cabo estuary.


ut, it doesn’t take long to realize the ways that human activity conflicts with that Ramsar protection. I see kids sitting on coolers, fishing - expressly forbidden. I see construction sites spilling into the estuary, and I saw that sad man with visions, possibly living in the thickets of the estuary.

And then—my eye catches the slender leaves of reeds bending in the still air. Not wind, a bird. A yellowthroat, not yellow, black and white like the Common species known throughout North America. But yellow and black. Belding’s Yellowthroat, there, and then gone.

Ramsar Sites are recognized as protected areas under international law, and member countries are obligated to uphold their commitments to conserve and manage these sites effectively. The Ramsar Convention also encourages international cooperation among countries to exchange knowledge, share best practices, and collaborate on transboundary wetland management.

White Pocket rainbow colors

Hooded Oriole in the San Jose del Cabo Estuary.


urrently, there are over 2,400 Ramsar Sites designated across the globe, covering a total area of over 252 million hectares. These sites serve as crucial habitats for countless species, contribute to water purification and flood control, and support local communities through tourism, fishing, and other sustainable activities.

But, it’s obvious from a simple walk through this estuary that few funds make it to the management of this Ramsar site. How is that possible, next to hundreds of billions in revenue and tourism pesos throbbing through a corridor of expensive hotels next door?

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