When I travel, I’m not looking for a place that feels familiar. I crave otherness. I look for destinations where you are so far removed from your daily routine that you can lose your sense of self and focus entirely on the experience in front of you.
Baja was that sort of place.
I traveled to Mexico with nothing in mind but surfing. When I arrived, I found the Pacific flat. The sand was inviting. The waves? The waves were nonexistent.
No matter. I swapped the surfboard for a camera and went wandering.
I have to confess something to you, now: I’m a lazy traveler. I book a flight and jump on board without doing much research. In fact, I avoid it. Knowing what I’m walking into isn’t what I’m searching for. I’m seeking the unexpected.
The first unexpected thing I stumbled on was the terrain.
I came to Baja for the openness of the water, and I found myself drawn to the unlooked-for serenity of the dessert. It’s vast and barren, and yet it’s packed with cacti—so strange when you have become accustomed to the lush land of Redwoods.
A cactus is an odd plant in every way. It’s even odder when you don’t expect it to be there and then, on a morning drive out to the beach, there it is with hundreds of its brothers, standing taller than you are and looking far more at home than you and your rental car.
You may have guessed that I’m not much for itineraries and guidebooks. I’m not sure what they would have been able to tell me about the little town I landed in. So, I can’t rattle off the history of Todos Santos, and I can’t tell you its five most popular tourist attractions or which hotel has the best rating.
What I can tell you is how blinding the light is at noon in the market. It cuts around the storefronts and the shadows they cast, which vendors and makers have settled into for the day. The sun-bleached streets spotted with shaded havens create a peculiar oasis in the middle of town. It’s the sort of dichotomy that puts you on the spot. “Are you going to buy something? Well? Hurry up, then!”—that’s what I can hear it saying as I snap.
It’s a bright place, Todos Santos. Its walls are splashed in jumped-up pastels and its goods are beaded and embroidered and woven by hand, stacked in lines for tourists like me to meander past, hands cupped over our eyes against the sun.
Todos Santos is one of those small towns that feels tiny. It has a wholesome sensibility to it. When you walk through the streets, you feel like you’re walking through real life—not your real life, but a life lived by those you spy through windows and garden gates. There are traditional papel picado banners linking stores to homes. They might be leftovers from a festival. I like to imagine they’re the remnants of a neighborhood celebration, a quinceañera, perhaps, or a wedding, but I’m probably being a bit dreamy.
It’s the light that gets me.
As a photographer, it’s the first thing I notice about a place. As a traveler, it’s essential to what I remember about a trip. My memories are keyed to how Mother Nature lit a certain moment. The light is transformative. It’s moody. It tells the story of the place, and it does it all in a snapshot. A weak ray cutting through fog? Just the beginning of a cactus-strewn morning. A sunset piercing the rim of a margarita glass? The precipice between a day in the sun and a tequila-soaked night out in Todos Santos.
The color of the light in Baja is different from what it is at home. Here, it’s hot. The temperature is balmy—comfortably in the mid-70s—but the warmth of the light makes it look like the sun is beating down on you. It makes the oranges more vivid and the blues appear ready to melt.
And that does feel so very much like Mexico, doesn’t it?