Are you an environmentally conscious traveler? Do you enjoy seeing a dark night sky? Consider how these two ideas go together. Ecotourism is an increasingly popular trend as travelers become aware of the impact of tourism on destinations and ecosystems. Simultaneously, more of us are interested in astrotourism – traveling to experience the night sky.
Unfortunately, most tourism increases development and light pollution, negatively impacting nocturnal ecosystems and the darkness overhead. How can we travel and not cause more light pollution? By traveling to destinations that focus on sustainability by day and by night, like Rancho Cacachilas in Baja California Sur. Read on to learn about this ecoresort and how you can plan a trip to enjoy the dark night sky above the Sierra Cacachilas mountains.
Why Ecotourism & Astrotourism Go Perfectly Together
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, ecotourism is tourism directed toward exotic, often threatened, natural environments, intended to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife. The International Ecotourism society further defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas, conserving the environment and sustains the well-being of the local people.” In short, ecotourism exists in contrast to mass tourism, which floods destinations without concern for the impact of tourism on the natural environment and local people.Ecotourism is focused on helping support local tourism economies and natural environments. Two common examples include visiting the Galapagos or Amazon with a local guide or tour company. There are examples of positive ecotourism destinations and experiences around the world.
A Cardon cactus bathes in the light of the moon
Ecotourism destinations are perfect places for astrotourism and stargazing. Ecotourism destinations, tour operators, and accommodations already focus on environmental sustainability. While you may find some ecotourism spots aren’t aware of dark sky preservation, it’s common to find them hand in hand. After all, if you’re seeking to experience and protect the natural environment in the daytime, it’s important to consider the nocturnal animal species and natural environment at night too.
Increasingly, ecotourism destinations are becoming aware of the opportunity to provide travelers with stunning natural experiences by day and at night, which is how I came to find myself sitting with from Rafael Camposeco, who oversees operations and programming at Rancho Cacachilas, discussing the night sky above us.
Space & Astrotourism on the Baja Peninsula
The mountainous Baja peninsula offers clear, open skies overhead
Baja California Sur (BCS) is the southern state on the Baja peninsula in Mexico. Most travelers to BCS visit Cabo San Lucas; intrepid explorers might find themselves in La Paz or Loreto. Few come to Baja California Sur for the night sky, but there’s plenty to experience for those who are interested.
Baja California Sur is home to roughly 800,000 people; its population density is roughly 28 people per square mile (11 people per square kilometer). Most of these inhabitants live in the cities. 290,000 people live in Los Cabos at the southern end of the peninsula, and another 245,000 live in La Paz. What this means is that most of BCS is open country, rolling and arid or mountainous. Light pollution is generally confined to the cities, and it’s possible to visit dark sky locations that score Class 1-3 on the Bortle dark-sky scale easily.
Photo credit: Ovedc via Wikimedia Commons
Additionally, the entire Baja Peninsula is home to some fascinating astrotourism activities during the day. In particular, the rock paintings of Sierra de San Francisco in northern BCS give insight into the ancient astronomy of indigenous people on the Baja Peninsula. In Baja California, the northern state, Sierra de San Pedro Mártir Observatory, located in Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Mártir is a worthy stop on a clear night. An astronomy-themed road trip on the Baja Peninsula would allow you to experience them all.
Located in the Sierra Cacachilas mountains along the gulf coast, Rancho Cacachilas is one of the few established ecotourism resorts directly targeting astrotourism enthusiasts who want to go stargazing on the Baja Peninsula.
Stargazing at Rancho Cacachilas Eco Resort
The author stargazing at Los Pisos
I was invited to visit Rancho Cacachilas specifically to experience the night sky. Established to help preserve the natural ecosystems and practice sustainable farming in the Sierra Cacachilas mountains, Rancho Cacachilas has several camps throughout the massive 14,000 hectares. These camps, including Los Pisos (the remote camp), Chivato (the modern camp), and Las Canoas (the mining camp) each offer visitors a different experience – of the landscape and the night sky.
During my visit, I spent two nights at Los Pisos and two nights at Chivato; I also made a daytime stop at Las Canoas. I had the opportunity to experience and document the night sky each night with varying success due to clouds and the waxing moon. Together with my guides Aaron, Augustin, and Florent, we explored the night sky and winter constellations.
Los Pisos: The Remote Camp
The night sky over the canvas tents of Los Pisos
Los Pisos, the remote camp at Rancho Cacachilas, is the optimal spot for stargazing on the ranch. It’s also the furthest into the property, and it takes about an hour of driving to reach the camp. Los Pisos is a primitive camp. This means you can expect canvas tents, composting toilets, and limited electricity – but don’t let that turn you off! It’s easier to see the night sky here, as there’s virtually no light pollution.
Las Canoas: The Mining Camp
I only visited Las Canoas during the day. It’s another optimal stargazing spot on Rancho Cacachilas because of its location. Las Canoas is secluded and protected from light pollution by the mountains that surround it. This camp is still being developed, but will likely be a top astrotourism spot on the ranch once it’s complete.
Chivato: The Modern Camp
Stars twinkle above the pool at Chivato
Chivato is much more of the ‘resort’ people think of in the term ‘eco-resort.’ You can still rest easy causing a limited environmental impact on the land with composting toilets and tents. There’s also a ‘hotel’ building to stay in if you want a bit more structure. There’s a kitchen building and common area, as well as a big fire pit and swimming pool. For stargazing, there’s some light pollution from nearby towns, but it’s still far better than you’ll find near any major city.
Together, these three camps offer something for every sustainably-minded traveler. Rancho Cacachilas practices sustainable tourism on a daily basis with their land, resource, and waste management. They’re also keen on protecting the night sky so visitors can enjoy un-light polluted stargazing.
Daytime Activities to Enjoy at Rancho Cacachilas
Rancho Cacachilas in the daytime offers sweeping views of the Sea of Cortes
In between stargazing sessions at Rancho Cacachilas, I experienced what else the ranch has to offer. These daytime activities are the main driver for tourism to Rancho Cacachilas.
- Mountain Biking – The biking trails at Rancho Cacachilas are undeniably excellent. Even as a non-rider, I could tell from walking a few trails that they provide interesting and challenging opportunities to experience the Sierra Cacachilas on two wheels.
- Hiking – Hiking is a great way to explore the ranch and immerse yourself in the unique ecosystem. I did several hikes to see the surrounding landscape and even pictographs left by former nomadic inhabitants of the area.
- Trail Riding – There’s a full ranch of donkeys and horses for riding. You can book a trail ride to see more of the Sierra Cacachilas at the pace historic explorers used to move.
Hiking during the day at Rancho Cacachilas
- Organic Farming – Rancho Cacachilas is home to two farms, Dos Hermanos and Gaspareño. Both practice organic farming practices and supply much of the produce, meat, and dairy for the kitchens in each camp.
- Farm-to-Table Dining – One of the surprising offerings at Rancho Cacachilas was farm-to-table dining options. I had the chance to sample freshly-made goat cheese, honey from local bees, fresh produce, sustainably farmed seafood, and even regionally-produced wine.
If you’re planning an astrotourism trip to Rancho Cacachilas, you can book these activities and hire local guides. To be honest, once the sun sets, you don’t need to stay up late to see the stars. If you like to sleep in, they can plan mid-morning or late afternoon departures which allow you to rest up for (and recover from) stargazing each night.
Planning Your Stargazing Trip to Rancho Cacachilas
Sunset at Chivato, as Rancho Cacachilas transitions to an astrotourism destination
Between the daytime activities and stargazing prospects, Rancho Cacachilas is a great option for spontaneous stargazing on clear nights. They also offer more structured experiences of the night sky, such as a lunar eclipse viewing party in January 2019. They plan to add more events around astronomic experiences like meteor showers, new moon nights, and even the partial solar eclipse that will pass over the Baja peninsula in 2024.
Rancho Cacachilas is open from December through April each year, so it’s a perfect winter getaway. You’ll see popular winter constellations like Orion, Taurus, Auriga, and Perseus in the night sky each night. You can also spot the Geminids, one of the best meteor showers of the year, in mid-December.
Three Tips for Stargazing at Rancho Cacachilas
The stars whirl overhead at Los Pisos in Rancho Cacachilas
While it might seem like a stargazing trip to Baja California Sur is a perfect winter escape, here are a few tips to make the most of your trip.
1. Pack Layers
Rancho Cacachilas is quite warm by day, with a blazing sun overhead even in the winter months. At night, the temperature cools off quickly. You’ll want layers to ensure you don’t get too cold while stargazing; Uniqlo offers a great ‘Ultra Light Down’ jacket for men and women that packs up small and light in your bag. You can also light a campfire to stay warm, but remember this will add light pollution to your view!
2. Bring Equipment – or Borrow from Rancho Cacachilas
If you have your own travel telescope or astronomical binoculars, bring them! It’s easy to spot objects like the Orion nebula, Andromeda Galaxy, and Beehive cluster with your eyes, but equipment will make them even more astounding. If you don’t have your own, Rancho Cacachilas has a pair of astronomical binoculars they can set up at Chivato (so make sure to have at least one night of your stay there!).
The moon as viewed through the high-powered binoculars at Rancho Cacachilas
3. Pay Attention to Moon Phases
During my trip to Rancho Cacachilas, I was plagued by a waxing moon – every night there was even more pollution from the luminous moon in the sky. During the 2019 season at Rancho Cacachilas, the new moon dates are February 4th, March 6th, and April 5th. In 2020, the new moon will occur on December 25th, January 24th, February 23rd, March 24th, and April 22nd. Plan your trip for the week surrounding these dates for the darkest skies!
Learn more about Rancho Cacachilas, the camps, and any upcoming astronomical events on their website.
Have more questions about ecotourism, astrotourism, or booking a trip to Rancho Cacachilas? Email us.