Baja Adventure Travel Tips
by Richard Harris
Sitting in the shade of a 30-foot-tall cardón cactus on a rocky hilltop, you can look out across a turquoise-blue bay so clear that golden tropical fish can be seen dancing beneath the surface. Vultures drift in lazy circles overhead, pelicans skim the water, and cormorants dive for fish from high in the sky. A pod of dolphins leaps along the surface of the bay in joyful abandon, and far off in the distance a whale spouts, looking like a geyser on a drifting desert island. Palms line the gracefully curving beach of sugary sand and thatch-roofed shelter where you’ve made camp for the night—and maybe the next week or so. A Oaxacan vendor comes by, selling drinking water, fresh fruit and colorful handwoven blankets. It’s the way you imagine a South Pacific tropical paradise would be—except for one thing. You can drive there. You don’t even need a passport.
This is one aspect of the Baja peninsula, a scantily populated wilderness that is startling in its immensity. Much of the wild interior has been set aside as national parks, biosphere reserves and other protected areas. Here you will discover majestic mountain peaks, cool forests, and some of the most dramatic desert scenery on earth, studded with volcanoes and alive with giant cactuses and strange species—elephant trees, incense trees, boojum trees—found nowhere else on earth. You’ll visit exotic port cities and graceful old colonial towns built around centuries-old mission churches. You may linger in laid-back fishing villages or bask on the beaches at world-class resort areas.
A road trip from the U.S. border to Los Cabos and back—just over 2000 miles—has all the elements of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. But the fact is, once bitten by the Baja bug, most people return year after year. There are seemingly endless “hidden” places to explore, and with the gradual improvement of many secondary roads, more such places become accessible to motorists each year. Read on and start planning your own journey of discovery in Baja.
Where to Go
Only one main highway runs the length of the Baja peninsula, so you’d think trip planning would be a snap. But, the best Baja adventures can be found on side trips from the main highway by back road or boat. Where you decide to spend most of your time will depend on the season, the duration of your trip and the outdoor activities you enjoy most.
Most travelers from the West Coast cross the U.S.-Mexican border at one of two ports of entry in Tijuana, a large city that also attracts many daytrippers with its duty-free shopping, raunchy nightlife and bullfights. Some travelers avoid Tijuana traffic by crossing at the industrial border town of Tecate, though it’s questionable whether this plan is either faster or simpler. Mexicali, the capital city of Baja California, is a convenient border crossing for travelers from Arizona and points east, as well as for anybody headed for San Felipe. The truly “hidden” border crossing for Baja is Algodones, near the California/Arizona line. Northern Baja is a study in contrasts. An hour’s drive south of Tijuana on the Baja Highway, Ensenada offers shopping and sightseeing possibilities along with plenty of traditional Mexican seaport charm. The coastline and mild, sometimes misty climate resemble San Diego’s. At the opposite extreme, San Felipe on the Sea of Cortez, a fishing village turned RVers‚ paradise, is surrounded by the driest desert in Baja. San Quintín, south of Ensenada, hardly looks like it belongs in Baja: Irrigation has transformed the coastal plain into a rich agricultural zone. Some of the best Pacific beaches lie south of San Quintín, but the area’s most spectacular attraction is Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Mártir, with its cool alpine forests and Baja’s highest mountain peaks.
As you enter central Baja, you suddenly find yourself in the vast, mainly uninhabited Desierto Central. The Baja Highway takes you through the surreal heart of the Cataviña boulder field—all huge cactuses, bizarre trees and rocks the size of houses. Rocky side roads lead to old mission ruins and far older cave paintings. Toward the south end of the desert, a paved side road takes you to Bahía de los Angeles on the Sea of Cortez. This quintessential gringo enclave has great fishing and sea kayaking, but no telephones.
If you decline to take this turnoff and continue south on the main highway, you’ll reach the Pacific Coast at Guerrero Negro soon after crossing into Baja California Sur. This rather bleak company town (nearly everybody works at the nearby salt mines) has emerged as a major ecotourism center thanks to the gray whales that return to nearby Scammon’s Lagoon each winter to calve and breed. Beyond Guerrero Negro, the vast Desierto Vizcaíno sprawls across the widest part of the peninsula. A long backroad journey will take you to a remote stretch of the Pacific coast, where huge colonies of sea lions and elephant seals inhabit the offshore islands.
Palm trees appear as southern Baja begins. Following the Baja Highway through landlocked San Ignacio, the starting point for whalewatching expeditions to the pristine Bahía San Ignacio, you’ll hit the Sea of Cortez coast at Santa Rosalía, a strangely un-Mexican town founded by European copper miners.
My favorite part of Baja lies south of Santa Rosalía, on the Sea of Cortez, near the hidden refuges of Mulegé and Loreto. Along the highway between the two towns, the beaches of Bahía Concepción have palm trees, sea shells, tropical fish, big cactuses, crystalline turquoise water and creamy sand that slides through your fingers like sugar. Snorkeling the bay or gliding across it in a kayak, you could easily decide never to return to civilization at all (though you’d change your mind when summer arrived). Beyond Loreto, the Baja Highway begins another long desert crossing, which you can break into manageable segments by taking a side excursion to San Carlos on Bahía Magdalena, the southernmost of Baja’s famous gray-whale calving bays. The Cape region of Baja California Sur begins with La Paz, the state capital, a small, laid-back city on a lovely harbor. Though sightseeing attractions are few, you won’t notice their absence as you explore the cheerful city streets and the exquisite nearby beaches. From there, it’s on to bustling Los Cabos, as San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas have come to be known. This mega-resort vacation zone on the very tip of the peninsula is Baja’s epicenter of mainstream tourism, where beaching, boating and deep-sea fishing attract more visitors than all other Baja destinations south of Ensenada combined. Being surrounded by the industrial-strength tourism of Los Cabos can quickly become a lot like having bees live in your head, but “hidden” getaways are nearby. Perhaps the best is Todos Santos, an emerging artist community that boasts legendary surfing beaches. It’s one starting point for hiking and horseback trips into the Sierra la Laguna, an isolated and unique natural area.
When to Go
There is no wrong time to go to Baja. Peak tourist seasons are May through September on the Pacific coast and Christmas week through early April on the Sea of Cortez.
As the growing hordes of snowbirds and whale watchers who head down the peninsula in January, February and March will not hesitate to caution you, some winter days can make you wish you’d brought your parka, especially along the windblasted Pacific coast. More often than not, however, the winter climate is mild, with temperatures in Ensenada running about the same as in San Diego and those in Los Cabos about 15 degrees warmer. Deep snow can render the high sierra inaccessible.
Spring offers an ideal climate for travel on the Baja Highway. It’s not too hot for desert hiking, and after a wet winter, you’ll see incomparable displays of desert wildflowers. Off-season rates prevail everywhere. The only downside to a spring trip is that the water off both coasts is still too cool for comfortable swimming or snorkeling.
Summer is relentlessly humid and hot on the Sea of Cortez; the Pacific coast can be more inviting. Desert areas are unbearable by day but may cool down by 40 degrees at night; on the Sea of Cortez, temperatures typically reach well above 100 degrees and stay there, day and night, for weeks on end. Water temperatures in the Sea of Cortez are nearly as high as air temperatures. Tropical storms called chubascos can pummel the coast without warning. The summer climate is extremely humid, and this is the only time of year when you’ll encounter mosquitoes. Autumn means warm water, moderate temperatures, low room rates and—in September and October—unpredictable weather patterns. Many sporting events, from huge bicycle races with thousands of contestants to the legendary Baja 1000 car and motorcycle races, take place at this time of year. Early December marks the beginning of snowbird season, when RV campers begin arriving in droves.
Calendar of Events
Early January Not many events take place in January, though the snowbird season is at its peak. El Día de los Santos Reyes, January 6, marks the end of the Christmas holiday season. It is on this day, not Christmas Day, that Mexicans feast and exchange gifts.
During February In Ensenada, San Felipe and La Paz, Carnaval (the Latin Mardi Gras) is celebrated with five days of parades, fireworks, costumes and dancing in the streets.
Late February Sports car racers compete in the Mexicali Grand Prix. San Felipe hosts the Mid-Winter West Hobie Regatta, a three-day sailing event for Hobie Catamarans.
Early March The desert around San Felipe provides the course for extreme off-road racing in the Score San Felipe 250, a scaled-down version of the famous Baja 1000.
March Ensenada’s Carnaval, held on the six days leading up to Lent (40 days before Easter), fills the streets with live music, dancing and costumes. Monday of Carnaval week is “henpecked husbands’ day,” when men are allowed 23 hours to indulge every desire˜at their own risk.
Late March Over Spring Break, traditionally the third and fourth weeks of March, college students from all over the western United States descend on Baja. The San Felipe area is hit hardest; Rosarito, Ensenada and Los Cabos are also packed with student bodies. The Fiesta de San José, honoring San José del Cabo’s patron saint, falls right in the middle of Spring Break.
During April Holy Week (Semana Santa), the week before Easter, is not as crowded in Baja as elsewhere in Mexico. But many people visit relatives on the “mainland,” and many businesses shut down from Wednesday through Sunday. San Felipe hosts a series of beach-style sporting events through the month, including the Posada del Mar Aerobics Meet, the San Felipe Triathlon, and the Beach Volleyball Slam Festival. Around the same time, 10,000 cyclists participate in the semiannual Rosarito to Ensenada Bicycle Race, and the Newport-Ensenada Yacht Race draws so many boaters that it claims to be the world’s largest regatta.
Late April What better place to recover from the month’s fitness events than at the Tijuana Pizza Festival?
Early May The streets of Cabo San Lucas are the scene of the annual Fireman’s Chili Cookoff Festival, which also features dancing, entertainment and a pie-eating contest.
Late May Vaqueros (Mexican cowboys) come from all over Baja and northern Mexico to compete for prizes in the Tecate Rodeo.
Early June The biggest happening of the month is Día de la Armada (Navy Day), when Mexican naval bases stage military boat processions for the people of nearby coastal towns.
Late June The Mexico International Volleyball Tournament, the world’s largest volleyball event, attracts more than 2000 players to Playa Estero south of Ensenada.
During July July 11 marks the Anniversary of Tijuana, founded in 1899. The fiesta lasts all month. Baja’s economic development, from factories to farming cooperatives, is the focus of Expo Ensenada.
During August Tecate’s La Pamplonada is patterned after the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and every bit as dangerous. The event is followed by the Guadalupe Valley Wine Festival in the vineyard country around Tecate. The Feria de Tijuana features entertainment, carnival rides and livestock shows at Agua Caliente racetrack from mid-August through mid-September.
Early September The Fiesta de Santa Rosalía is colorfully celebrated in both Santa Rosalía and Mulegé. A few days later, Loreto’s Día de la Virgen de Loreto climaxes with a spectacular street procession.
Mid-September Many Baja towns celebrate Mexico’s Independence Day, September 16, with fireworks and festivities. In Mexicali and La Paz, the observance lasts for two days and includes an array of cultural events.
During October El Día de la Raza (The Day of the Race, referring to mestizos) is celebrated in place of Columbus Day.
Late October The Mexicali-San Felipe Sports Weekend features a Mexicali-San Felipe Bicycle Ride (55 miles or 125 miles), a San Felipe Mountain Bike Ride (10 miles or 20 miles) and a Mexicali-San Felipe Five-Person Running Relay. Around the same time, the 50-mile Rosarito-Ensenada Bicycle Race draws even more participants than the same race held in the springtime; cyclists have numbered around 16,000 in recent years. Cabo San Lucas honors its patron saint with the Fiesta de San Lucas on October 18.
Early November El Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead—actually two days, November 1 and 2—is generally a quiet, stay-at-home time in Baja; most businesses close. Soon afterward, San Felipe’s biggest party of the year, the Shrimp Festival, fills three days with music, dancing, seafood and beach fun.
Mid-November Granddaddy of backroad Baja races, the Baja 1000 follows different routes in different years, alternating between the traditional 1000-mile Ensenada-La Paz race (a Baja institution long before the highway was paved) and a 1000-kilometer circuit of Baja California Norte. The race has four divisions—motorcycles, dune buggies, stock cars and four-wheel-drive trucks.
Early December San Felipe stages a Snowbird Welcome Fiesta in observance of the annual mass migration of RVers to its beaches.
Before You Go
The Secretaría de Turismo de México (SECTUR) maintains tourism offices in Baja’s two state capitals, Mexicali (Centro Comercial Baja California #4-C, Calzada Independencia at Calle Calafia; 6-556-1172, fax 6-556-1282) and La Paz (Km. 5.5 Carretera Transpeninsular; 1-122-7975). SECTUR operates tourist information offices in Ensenada, San Felipe, Tecate, Tijuana and San José del Cabo. For many travelers, the easiest SECTUR tourist office to visit is the one north of the border. ~ 7860 Mission Center Court, Suite 202, San Diego, CA 92108; 619-298-4105, 800-522-1516.
Some Baja cities and towns have tourist offices operated by a municipal Comite de Turismo y Convenciones (cotuco).
Among the most valuable travel information sources are two English-language monthlies sold at newsstands and campgrounds all over the peninsula. The Baja Sun newspaper has a calendar of events and a mix of travel, financial and other coverage of interest to expatriates and travelers. ~ Editorial El Sol de Baja, Avenida Pedro Loyola 295, Las Palmas at Fraccionmento Acapulco, Ensenada; 6-176-9192; www.bajasun.com. Baja Life, a slick, colorful magazine, covers topics from fishing and wildlife watching to new resort hotels and Mexican property taxes. ~ Baja Communications Group, P.O. Box 4917, Laguna Beach, CA 92652; 949-376-2252, fax 949-376-7575; www.bajalife.com.
Several California-based travel
clubs rank among the best sources of up-to-date information on road
conditions, weather, fuel availability, fishing and such. They also offer
discount rates for hotels, restaurants, RV parks, kayaking and
sportfishing trips, books and maps; member discounts on Mexican car and
boat insurance can save you more than the price of membership (in the $30-
to $40-a-year range). Leading travel clubs include Vagabundos del Mar Boat
and Travel (190 Main Street, Rio Vista, CA 94571; 707-374-5511,
800-474-2252, fax 707-374-6843), Mex Club (660 Bay Boulevard, Suite 214,
Chula Vista, CA 91910; 619-585-3033, fax 619-420-8133), and Discover Baja
Travel Club (3089 Clairemont Drive, Suite A-2, San Diego, CA 92117;
619-275-4225, 800-727-2252, fax 619-275-1836).
Hidden Baja by Richard Harris.
Copyright © 200 by Richard Harris. Excerpted by arrangement with Ulysses
Press. $14.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-377-2542 or click