South of Ensenada, on the road to the world-famous blowhole known as La Bufadora, there are some lesser-known delights often overlooked by tourists and even locals.
A large portion of the pueblo of Punta Banda consists of a five-mile sandbar extending between Todos Santos Bay and El Estero de Punta Banda. This estuary, and the surrounding marshes and dunes, comprise a Mexican Natural Protected Area that is home to nearly seventy species of marine and terrestrial birds. This includes several endangered species such as the light-footed clapper rail, the California least tern, California brown pelican and Belding’s savannah sparrow.
Only about two-thirds of this spit is inhabited; beyond that lies dunes, ocean and sky. Far across the bay, downtown Ensenada can be glimpsed, but from this vantage even the giant Mexican flag and the occasional ship heading into port seem insignificant.
The mountains that encircle Ensenada and Todos Santos Bay form a distant ring that stretches from north to east to south; the only sounds are of birds, wind and surf. Even the light seems more golden on the far end of the spit.
You can enjoy this area by boat, on hiking trails, or by walking or biking down the smooth, sandy beach at low tide (cars and trucks are prohibited). Also, be aware that some of these birds build their nests on the ground; so walking in the dunes should be avoided during nesting seasons.
To get to the dunes, take the main road to La Bufadora through the small town of Colonel Esteban Cantu (or simply, Cantu).
If you prefer to drive down to where the dunes begin, you’ll make a right turn onto the Not Z Road (at km. 12.5). The name of the road is not posted, but there is a small sign that says Agua Caliente. Follow this road all the way to the end. You’ll pass two guard shacks on the way. The first one is abandoned; when you come to the second one, just tell them you’re going to la playa (the beach).
Kayaking is a great way to explore the estuary and it’s not a difficult paddle if you flow with the tides. One caution: in a minus tide the mouth of the estuary (about two miles northeast of the launch) runs hard and may be hazardous for inexperienced kayakers.
If you plan to hike the dunes, continue to the end of the Not Z Road. From here you can take a short trail, marked with interpretive signs, from the end of the road into the dunes on the estuary side. Another option is to walk along the beach on the bay side. This enables you to go all the way down to where the Estero de Punta Banda flows in from the bay. If you make your way around the tip of the spit, often you’ll be rewarded by the sight of sea lions sunning themselves on the beach.
Another unusual feature of this area is a natural hot spring, located on the opposite end of the beach near the main road. These hot springs have been renowned for their healing properties since the late 1800s. At high tide the spring disappears under the water (making for some dramatic hot and cold currents if you go swimming), but at low tide the hot spots lie exposed for anyone with a shovel and some initiative to enjoy.
You may wonder, as I did, how it is possible for hot, fresh water springs to co-exist with the cold, salty ocean water. The explanation is that this region, like most of California, rests on fault lines. In Agua Caliente, deep fissures in the earth provide a direct route for magma-heated water to rise to quickly the surface. As it reaches the top of the sand, the fresh water mingles with salt water, dissipating its heat, but if you dig your finger in even an inch, you may find the sand too hot to touch.
However, as you dig, the hot water should cool down just enough to provide you with a comfortable, heated pool. If not, you can always mix in some seawater. After all that manual labor you’ll be especially happy to lay back with a cold drink and enjoy your well-earned natural soak, complete with an ocean view.
The springs can be a little tricky to locate the first time you go, but once you know what to look for, it’s easy. To get there, grab a shovel and follow the main road (Carretera La Bufadora) to La Jolla Beach Camp. Turn right and go straight to the parking area. Once on the beach, look for the spots that appear wetter than the surrounding sand at low tide. There may even be steam rising. You’ll know for sure you’re in the right place when you touch the sand and find it warm. Then all you have to do is dig!