There has never been any doubt in my mind that Baja holds multiple well-kept secrets. Mysteries that slowly reveal themselves over decades of Highway 1 travel, strangers divulging tidbits of information about hidden gems that should be on my radar, and late night google searches. But, even more importantly, and only over the past few years, certain #hashtags on social media that find their way into my stratosphere and lead me to a bona fide back road bonanza. That very thing just happened on my last trip through southern Baja and it was a sweet revelation; one that I will return to again and again.
Enter Rancho Las Cruces. I found out about this wonderland via Instagram. I was roaming the dusty alleys of the tiny kite surfing mecca, La Ventana, on the hunt for some kind of remote luxe digs and the Rancho popped up on Instagram as a close by possibility. I was immediately enchanted by the photos posted and gave them a ring to check on the affordability and availability super last minute (my usual MO). Not only was I granted immediate access, I was delighted to find out that all meals were included with the price. I soon found out why.
Miles and miles of no-signs-allowed sandy roads later (it’s 30 km south of La Paz and only accessible by boat and one very bumpy dirt road), I found myself checked into the Rancho with a margarita in hand, sprawled out on uber soft, high thread count sheets in a gorgeous ocean front room (Room #1) ...with a cool breeze slowly wafting in. I was informed that a late lunch of creamy crab salad was being served within minutes of my arrival. As I sauntered over to the dining room, it became evident that I was quite possibly alone at the resort unless throngs of people had already had lunch and were tucked away in their casitas that lined the private malecón? Nah, I was alone. And, yes, I said private.
You see, the Rancho has a number of private elements. A private church for private weddings. A private dock. Close to seven miles of private beaches. Private home/retreats perched on cliffs overlooking the Sea of Cortez, all with private roads. Private aqueducts that irrigate private orchards. A private house crest adorning every plate. Even a small, private airstrip. And, here is where history enters the picture.
Way back in 1535, Hernán Cortés sailed across the Atlantic on the hunt for new lands to conquer. One of his famous expeditions led him to the Baja peninsula and the mass amounts of gorgeous pearls and fortunes to be made (sadly, there was no gold to be found). Three enormous cross replicas still mark the spot where Cortés is commemorated and their stunning vision are now a part of the spiritual Las Cruces landscape.
But then, some 400 odd years later, the pearls dried up and in the early 1900’s, a pilot named Abelardo L. Rodriguez (Rod) Montijo was flying over and not much later, bought the verdant land. He decided to create an intimate luxe resort with his elegant movie star wife, Luciller Bremer. It was Baja’s first "swimming pool necessary" resort and celebs of all kinds jetted down from Hollywood for all night parties, beachside affairs, mornings on the tennis courts, and most of all, the incredible food that the kitchen still doles out. This resort marked the birth of tourism in Baja. There are still thousands upon thousands of acres to explore, including a natural sanctuary full of sacred waterfalls (Seven Sacred Pools) and hidden “sweet-water” dipping pools. This all makes for fun days to luxuriate in, but first we must eat.
The resort has a royal staff decked out to the nines to keep the grounds up and take care of your every little whim. Which is wonderful, especially since the price for room and food isn’t astronomical. And, though the grounds are ravishing in their lushness, and the rooms prepared just so, it’s in the sprawling kitchen that the technique and skill of the Baja heritage really come alive. The sassily outfitted gals who run the kitchen like a tight Navy squadron are all part of a few big local families and go back generations. Usually someone has to retire for a spot to open up and they take over for their grandmother or grandpa who has finally been able to kick back and spend their golden years fishing or playing with their grandkids.
Once you’ve had the delicate gourmet food at the Rancho, you don’t want to leave. Ever. Customized breakfasts are ready the second you wander into the dining room. Steaming coffee, fresh platters of fruit, tiny dabs of butter with just baked bread and hand squeezed juice all greet you before you’ve even ordered. I became obsessed with their cheese omelet. I have never seen such a perfectly cooked, dramatically yellow omelet outside of Paris. Day after day, they came out like goldenrod tubes of perfection. How do they do that?! Well, I discovered the answer once I saw the house cookbook that a pair of enterprising Rancho homeowners just put out in 2017. It’s an amazing publication - full of glorious photos, every single house recipe, epic Hollywood tales and the entire history of the Rancho all wrapped up into one tiny package of goodness. Each sale of the book is put toward a fund for rebuilding the greenhouses and on-site garden they hope to get back up and running in the coming months.
The thing that really blew me away though was the bar. I had noticed jars of homemade simple syrups lining the edge of the bar on arrival, never thinking that they had a real craft cocktail program. But, it turns out, the current owners and managers (Niki is the grandson of a former Mexican president) brought in a crafts spirit man from Todos Santos to teach the bar staff how to mix some proper drinks. Each one was reminiscent of a $20 cocktail you’d get in a super high-end speakeasy in the big city. But here, they were a fraction of the price. They went along perfectly with the cocktail hour snack that was served at the bar (think grilled local shrimp and gooey queso and guacamole) and then, each drink can really set the tone for dinner, which was usually fresh char-grilled fish and piles of tiny baby vegetables. Caught by the resorts full time fishermen daily, you’ve almost never tasted seafood until the simple flavors of the Rancho permeate your mouth.
I couldn’t believe I had this hideaway almost to myself for days and when I left to venture north to Loreto, I had to stop back in for a few days on the way back down to Los Barriles. It just kept calling me back – a perfect throwback pit stop to the concrete grind of Highway 1. The traditions of the olden days grabbed hold of me like a vice. Tiny, remote beaches (I Vant To Be Alone) is a Greta Garbo named favorite. The complimentary bike scoots you down gravel roads to the eye boggling crosses (for me, it came complete with flat tire and push back to the clubhouse). The later afternoon windstorms whipping up white caps on the sea. The spy thrillers galore to choose from in the library that I stayed up all night absorbing. The deep silence in an arid desert. The low-key Wi-Fi in the rooms for a proper check out from civilization. The old timey elements dotting the property. The thrill of what was and what could be again in that very moment all tugged at my nomadic heartstrings and made this newfound spot one of my top 5 in all of Baja over a matter of a few sun-splashed days. It was just that simple.
Fun Fact #1:
When you go (and you will), look for the famous names from way back in the day in the guestbook displayed in the clubhouse. It’s wild that a place can still have a dining room with a dress code – just like when all the glamour folks were floating about decades ago.
Fun Fact #2:
The success of Las Cruces prompted Rod to build other world class resorts in Baja. What is now the exclusive celeb frequented One & Only Palmilla was one of them.