GUERRERO NEGRO, Mexico — Far from the sprawling, all-inclusive resorts of Mexico's Los Cabos is a part of the Baja California peninsula that few tourists ever see, but should.
In one of Mexico's largest federally protected conservation areas for flora and fauna is a land forested with desert plants that look like they were drawn by Dr. Seuss: candle-like boojum trees and distinctively sculptural elephant trees, towering cardon cacti and other types of succulents.
Sitting in the middle of the peninsula, this little-known spot is the Valle de los Cirios, or Valley of the Boojums. The plants it is named for were dubbed cirios — or candles — in Spanish, evidently because of their resemblance to tapered church candles at the missions nearby. Southwestern naturalist Godfrey Sykes later christened that same tree the "boojum," for an imaginary animal character in Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem "The Hunting of the Snark."
Birds like pelicans and ospreys abound and peninsular pronghorns, once hunted to near extinction, roam the desert landscape. Under a Mexican government program, the hoofed animals are now making a comeback from their once critically endangered status. Among the oldest known mammals in the Americas, the pronghorns are known locally as "ghosts of the desert" because their golden brown or tan color and white markings helps camouflage them.
Nearby, visitors can see ancient cave paintings depicting deer, whales and humans with six fingers.
The stark beauty and solitude encountered are a far cry from the fancy restaurants, pools with swim-up bars, fishing, snorkeling and sunbathing popular on the southern end of the Sea of Cortez, the long slip of water sandwiched between the Baja Peninsula and Mexico's mainland. The peninsula was once eloquently described in a travel journal by American writer John Steinbeck; its stunning coral reefs were praised by ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.
A short way to the south, magnificent gray whales arrive every year off the Pacific coast town of Guerrero Negro, following one of the world's longest migration routes. They mate and calve in the lagoons nearby.
Mexico's government says there were more than 2,600 whales in the lagoons at the end of February, including adults and calves — among the highest numbers in 19 years and 10 percent more than last season. It estimates whale-watching could continue through the end of April before the sea mammals head back to Alaska.
Guerrero Negro has a long whaling history and was named for the whaling ship Black Warrior that partially sank in the area in 1858.
Also located here is the largest salt-making facility on the planet. The salt is extracted from ocean water by evaporation, taking advantage of the region's low yearly rainfall, its large areas of flatlands and high solar radiation.
If you go:
Valley of the Boojums is in the middle of the 775-mile (1,247-kilometer) Baja California peninsula and can be reached by car. Vehicles can be rented either in Tijuana near the Mexico-U.S. border in the north or in the resorts of La Paz or Los Cabos in the south.
Guerrero Negro can be reached by car and has a small airport with regional service. Visiting the lagoons where you can watch whales is possible only through authorized tour operators in Guerrero Negro. Guides for seeing cave drawings can also be found in Guerrero Negro.