Traveling through Baja is like taking a trip back in time. Think southern California before the interstates and subdivisions. Long before the beaches were all named and roped off. When dirt roads still led to remote surf hideaways and secret beaches made perfect campsites.
Pinched between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez, Mexico’s Baja Peninsula offers a rare combination of culture and outdoor opportunities minus hordes of tourists once you leave the confines of the Cabo San Lucas resort scene.
The list of reasons to visit Baja right now is a long one. From the vibrant and welcoming rural communities scattered across the peninsula to the remote islands and breathtaking marine environments, here are just a few things to get you excited about experiencing the magic of Baja…
1) Endless, Undeveloped Beaches
Surrounded by coastline on two sides, Baja has no shortage of beaches. Many of these remain undeveloped and completely wild. Imagine paddling a kayak over crystal clear, turquoise waters teeming with fish before pulling into your own private paradise campsite where miles of undisturbed sand lay at your feet. Feel like you are dreaming? Not in Baja.
Baja sea kayaking trips take the privacy level up a notch by paddling around the isolated and remote islands scattered across the Sea of Cortez. The island environments are rich with fish, birds and marine life and are often compared to the Galápagos for their abundance and diversity of species.
Not to mention, Baja Sur has exceptional air quality and the stars are mesmerizing. Lying on a secluded beach beneath a blanket of stars is the best way to wrap up a day of exploring in Baja.
2) “Mag Bay” Whale Watching
If you had to make a top three list for Baja, whale watching in Magdalena Bay would easily make the cut. Gray whales winter in the bay where they rear calves and casually cruise through calm waters. Whale watching is not a long distance affair here and you have the rare opportunity to see, and in some cases interact with, gray whales up close. The whales are very aware of the boats and often will swim right up to them in a curious fashion. Imagine being mere feet away from a massive gray whale as it casually inspects you up close and personal. The gentle giants are spectacular and “Mag Bay” hosts the best viewing grounds in the world.
3) Biodiversity Hot Spot
Gray whales are spectacular but they aren’t alone in the waters surrounding Baja. Strap on a scuba mask and fins if you really want a clear view of the fish and marine mammals (more than 900 species) that surround the beaches and rocky islands here. A kaleidoscope of sea life casually maneuvers between rocks and forages on the sandy ocean floor in plain view, dolphin sightings are common and somersaulting with sea lions can be a highlight of the trip. Not to mention, from early winter to late spring you might even be able to swim alongside a whale shark—the largest fish in the ocean—which migrates to the Sea of Cortez annually to feed.
And if you love bird watching, don’t forget your binoculars. The varied ecosystems of Baja—everything from mangrove-lined bays and mud flats to massive desert landscapes and fish-rich seas—welcome many hundreds of bird species. Pelicans bombard bait fish, gulls troll the shoreline, cormorants dive between rocks, shovelers scoop clams from the mud and vultures pick at fish carcasses on the beaches. Egrets, eagles, herons, and osprey – the list goes on.
4) Incredible Fishing Opportunities
Some of the many fish species in Baja are hard fighting sport fish that double as table fare, making great tacos or the freshest sushi possible. Hit the open seas for yellowfin tuna and dorado if you want a battle that ends with a meal. Dorado are also caught from shore here, which isn’t known to happen in many other places. Sailfish, roosterfish and jack crevalle attract anglers from around the globe, as well.
The abundance and diversity means you can catch a few corvina off your kayak for the dinner table or head out on a charter for big game. Things start heating up in late January as warming water brings in migratory game fish. From February through the summer months, fishing is red hot from the shore, a kayak or offshore boat.
5) It’s Not All Water
The beaches and turquoise waters may lure the most visitors to Baja, but the abundance of mountains and rugged inland terrain is always a surprising bonus. The Baja Peninsula hosts numerous mountain ranges and some press right up against the sea. Thirty miles south of Loreto near Puerto Escondido, the road is sandwiched between jagged desert peaks and a rugged coastline. Between trips to the area’s pristine beaches and paddling the coastline, you can head for the hills on hikes that lead through cacti-filled desertscapes and red rock canyons. Gain some elevation for impressive views of the bays and rugged coastline while giving your legs a workout.
6) Surf Camps
Forget waiting in line for a wave on a crowded beach. Jump in a good 4WD rig and head down remote two track roads to find secluded surf spots. The massive winter breaks of Baja Malibu are no secret and they attract top talent from the international surfing community. The entire north coast, however, has scattered breaks where surfers can explore and find their own piece of paradise.
7) Mouth-watering Food
Every great trip begins and ends with the local flavor. If you love fresh, authentic Mexican food, Baja will not disappoint. Local restaurants and roadside stands serve up incredible fish tacos, tamales, carnitas, huevos rancheros, sushi and more. Every corner seems to have it’s own family run restaurant or food stand and you’ll be hard pressed to find a bad meal. The homemade sauces, generous portions and mouth-watering flavors of local dishes will leave you wanting more. The prices are typically a fraction of those found in U.S. restaurants. So fill up while you can.
8) World-class Wine Country
One aspect of Baja that flies way under the radar is its world-class wine country in the northern region. Cross the border at Tecate and within 20 minutes you are driving through beautiful vineyards with wine tasting and lodging. The crowds are minimal and the prices are a fraction of Napa Valley wine tours.
On the Ruta del Vino, roadside vendors display and sell local varietals and the tasting rooms are often set in Colonial Spanish buildings with rooftop tasting areas overlooking the vineyards and valleys. Some properties, like Cuatros Cuatros vineyard and cabanas near Ensenada, even overlook the Pacific Ocean.
9) Laid Back Towns
While Cabo is home to the resort scene, spring break parties and large scale tourism, it definitely does not capture the essence of Baja and the rich coastal culture found along both coasts.
A short distance to the north of Cabo, you’ll come across Todos Santos and La Paz. Todos Santos is a quiet surf town on the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula with a vibrant artist community and excellent fishing. La Paz is a larger town on the Gulf of California side that has a working class, coastal community charm. The highlight of La Paz is undoubtedly the Malecon, the city’s vibrant waterfront boardwalk where you’ll find authentic restaurants, shopping, and epic sunset views. A stroll here quickly draws you into Baja’s easy pace of life.
Drive in any direction in Baja, however, and you will come across hidden gem villages and towns worth stopping to explore.
Photos: Justin Bailie, Cari Morgan