Mexico’s 775-mile-long Baja Peninsula is a magnet for travelers in search of their own arid slice of adventure paradise. From surfing to mountain biking to beach lounging, here’s how to get off the beaten path and do it right.
by Stephanie Pearson for Outside
More than 75 percent of Baja’s 3.3 million residents live in the northern cities of Tijuana and Ensenada. Much of the rest of the 55,366-square-mile peninsula—surrounded by the Pacific Ocean on the west coast and the Gulf of California on the east coast—is wide-open space, an increasing amount of which is becoming preserved as federal lands, private reserves, and community projects. In total there are more than 14 million acres of protected land and water, including seven national parks, like Sierra de San Pedro Mártir in northern Baja, where Picacho del Diablo, the peninsula’s highest peak, rises to 10,154 feet. The rocky hike to the top is rewarded with views of the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez. Mountain bikers can get in on ocean views, too, with an exponentially growing network of trails in the mountains surrounding La Paz, Todos Santos, and Los Cabos.
But Baja’s most celebrated feature is its 2,038 miles of jagged coastline, which courts surfers, stand-up paddleboarders, sailors, scuba divers, snorkelers, paddlers, and anglers. Jacques Cousteau famously coined the Sea of Cortez, home to 800 varieties of fish, “the world’s aquarium.” Many of those species are protected in reserves like 27-square-mile Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park on the southern tip of Baja. On the Pacific side, the new, nearly three-million-acre Baja California Pacific Islands Biosphere Reserveis a protective sanctuary for gray whales and sea turtles.
My first experience in Baja started in Tijuana with a fish-bowl sized margarita. It was 1988, and the city was festive and gritty. Its complexity intrigued me. A decade later, I hopped a flight to the pastel-hued 17th-century mission village of Loreto to find it full of Hawaiian-shirt-clad fishermen en route to compete in a tournament for dorado, marlin, and sailfish in the Sea of Cortez. I headed south to the solitude of a nine-room eco-resort (which has since closed) on a searing white-sand beach looking out on the mysterious, cacti-studded Isla Danzante.
Three years ago, my boyfriend and I rented a car to explore the southern tip of the peninsula, mountain-biking the foothills above Los Barriles, snorkeling with sea lions off Isla Espíritu Santo, and eating whole grilled red snapper while sipping jalapeño margaritas at an under-the-radar restaurant on the edge of La Paz’s marina. Along the way, we found a wind-carved canyon pierced by sunlight above the Sea of Cortez and long stretches of empty Pacific white sand.
A few months ago we returned, going deeper into the peninsula, exploring a network of new mountain-bike trails, paddling the newly protected waters of the Pacific Islands Biosphere Reserve, and meeting with a young entrepreneur, Adolfo de la Peña, in the old mining community of San Antonio, where he is trying to resurrect his historic community. As quickly as things are changing in Baja, some of the best things remain the same, like that La Paz restaurant, where we returned to eat grilled red snapper. The fish was as exquisitely fresh as we remembered it.
What You Need to Know Before Visiting Baja
Prepare for warm days and cold water: The Baja sun is hot, but the Sea of Cortez and Pacific Ocean can be cold, so pack protective Buffs, hats, UPF 50, and quick-drying cover-ups. Also bring a solid pair of shoes beyond flip-flops—cactus spines are omnipresent, from the beaches to the mountain-bike trails.
Get supplemental car insurance: If you plan to drive your car into Baja, make sure it’s in prime working order. Pending how remote you plan to get, you may not be able to find replacements parts if needed. For an idea of spare parts to bring along, visit All About Baja’s Vehicle Preparation Checklist. And be sure to buy a Mexican car-insurance policy as U.S. plans don’t work south of the border. Get a quote from Lewis and Lewis, a company that has been selling Mexican auto insurance since 1983, from one-day to one-year policies.
Or rent a car: If you aren’t driving down yourself, unless you plan to never leave a resort, you’ll want a car to explore. Note that the minimum age for car rental is 25 years old, but some companies accept drivers 21 and older with a valid driver’s license from another country and add a surcharge to the rental fee. American car-rental agencies like Hertz and Thrifty are ubiquitous at the Los Cabos airport—and be sure to buy the Mexican rental insurance. According to Mexican law, uninsured drivers can be arrested and held for liable damages.
Drive only during the day: For three key reasons: there are wandering cows, the roads are narrow with no shoulders, and in the evening, there are a lot more big-rig cargo trucks.
Find a less expensive flight across the border: Fly to San Diego, then take a 30-minute shuttle, Uber, or taxi to the Cross Border Xpress (CBX) facilities, a 390-foot-long pedestrian skybridge that crosses from California into Mexico and goes directly to Tijuana International Airport. If you use the CBX service (from $16 one way, and an additional $12 one way if you use the CBX shuttle), there’s no need to enter Tijuana airport’s main departure lounge. You’ll pass through the CBX’s security and go directly to your gate. On a good day, it’s possible to reach your gate in about twenty minutes (though you should always allow for extra time pending high volume travel days and other factors). Domestic Mexican airline Volaris offers direct flights to Loreto, La Paz, and Los Cabos, and Calafia Airlines has direct flights to Loreto and La Paz.
Check travel advisories for the region: The Baja Peninsula is safer than most of mainland Mexico, but the situation is fluid, so keep an eye on U.S. State Department travel advisories.
Do your camping homework: Unlike the U.S., camping is not strictly regulated in Baja, which has its pros and cons. You can find yourself alone on a stretch of golden sand savoring the sunset of a lifetime, but there are also fewer amenities, like toilets and trash receptacles. The best places to camp are near small coastal towns and away from mega resort corridors, like Los Cabos. Read online forums and feel out the vibe of the place before staking the tent.
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