The Baja Peninsula of Mexico is 775 miles long, extending from the southern border of the USA south of San Diego down to Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip. With the Sea of Cortez on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, it has a staggering 1,900 miles of coast land and beaches to explore, not counting the islands scattered around that you can explore by boat or kayak.
The whole thing is called Baja California. Let’s not forget that the U.S. territory now called California was part of Mexico before we annexed it in a war negotiation in 1848. The peninsula is divided into two Mexican states now. The northern state is mostly wine country, some beaches, and Tijuana. The southern part is wilder and, until you get to the bottom of it, not very populated.
So this post is going to cover the more adventure-oriented Baja Sur, which includes the prime whale watching areas, Loreto, La Paz, Todos Santos, and Los Cabos. If you were coming down in a camper van or RV, you’d probably start with the cave paintings or the San Ignacio Bay options below. If you are flying into the San Jose del Cabo airport, skip forward to those Los Cabos parts and then think about the far less crowded places up north after you’ve had enough beach and pool time in Cabo.
Is Baja California safe? This is the first question from anyone who has never been to Mexico, but for the most part, yes. The roads are great, the police are well-organized, and there’s so much money at stake for tourism here that the private sector also keeps pressure on the government to keep the peace. Millions of Americans and Canadians travel up and down this region each year with no issues, including me five times now. Just apply the usual rules of common sense safety and anytime you can avoid it, don’t be driving across the desert in the middle of the night in your flashy vehicle.
Here are some of the top Baja adventures to consider for a long weekend vacation or months of travel in Baja California.
See the Cave Paintings of Sierra de San Francisco
The rock paintings of Sierra de San Francisco are a protected group of works recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site collectively. There’s an air of mystery around them since the people who painted them had given up and moved on or died out long before the Spanish arrived. (The paintings are from 1300 AD and earlier.) They’ve been well-preserved in the desert climate and since they’re in rather isolated areas well off the tourist track, they never suffered any vandalism and are still quite impressive.
This is not some outdoor museum that’s 20 minutes from your resort. You’ve got to make a special effort in a car or on a tour to get here then hike up to a high cave to see the paintings. It’s a day’s trip in itself. And this is just the most accessible set.
Get Close to Mama and Baby Whales Part 1: San Ignacio Lagoon
There are two places in Baja Sur where gray whales come down from the Arctic Circle each year to breed, spawn, and teach their babies how to survive. From roughly January through April, you can come stay in a camp on San Ignacio Lagoon and go observe them in a boat. You’ll see mama whales poke their head straight up and do the spyhop thing, you’ll see whales breaching, and the big creatures will often swim right beside your boat.
Early in the period you might see some mating going on and catch sight of a “pink floyd” in action. Anytime in the season you might be lucky enough to interact with a gray whale baby. There’s a large protected area of the bay where boats aren’t allowed. This other part is their play area. The mothers swim around some distance from the boat usually while the babies come around and stick their head up. This is like playground time for mama, so yes, you can pat the baby on the head and no angry mother is going to go Moby Dick on you. She’s in on the game.
This is one of the most memorable Baja adventures you could possibly experience, so if you’ve got a couple weeks or more in the region, make this one a high priority.
Visiting The Oasis of Mulegé
After driving through the desert and seeing a million cordon cacti, it’s a rather strange sight to pull up to the Mission of Santa Rosalía de Mulegé and see this oasis stretching out before you.
Full of date palms, fig trees, and citrus trees, this lush green place is a serene spot for a picnic on your way north or south on Highway 1 between San Ignacio and Loreto. The stone mission church here dates back to the late 1700s.
Fish Tacos, Beers, and a Swim in a Perfect Bay
The Baja Peninsula is one of North America’s best recreational vehicle road trip locations and each winter lots of RVers head south in their home on wheels to find a nice spot in the sun. One area where they camp out is about as picture-perfect as you can get: Playa El Burro on Concepción Bay. Park the car and join them for a swim or just have lunch at the restaurant where the sign out front just says, “Food & Beer.” What else do you need here?
If you’re so enchanted you want to stick around for a while but you didn’t bring your own camper van or tent, you can find some huts for rent by the night.
Hike Around the Desert Hilltops of Sierra La Giganta
The Baja Peninsula has more variety than most people expect and the tourism slogan of “where the desert meets the sea” only scratches the surface. There are areas between the Pacific and Loreto that are great locations for a casual hike where you can see a variety of plants and landscapes that are different than on the coast. First, there are the kooky boojum trees that look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.
Also, there’s a surprising amount of fog rolling across this area, which helps the colorful flowers get enough water and creates some dramatic landscapes when you look out from a high point. Keep your eyes peeled for good stopping points if you are headed to Loreto.
Hike the Dramatic Mountains Around Loreto
The approach to Loreto, riding through a pass between craggy mountains that glow red in the sun, is one of Mexico’s most beautiful drives. This is not a time to be swiping and scrolling on your phone in the back seat. If you want to take it all in with a more slow travel approach, however, step outside of Loreto and hit some hiking trails in those mountains.
You can do these hikes yourself if you bring plenty of water and sun protection, but this might be a time to consider having a guide. You’ll have transportation and access to more trailhead options that way and you get past the problem that many of these trails are not well-marked.
Go Whale Watching or Kayaking in Loreto
In the bays mentioned earlier you’ll see gray whales, around Los Cabos and Loreto there are lots of humpback whales. In Loreto you actually have a fair chance of seeing a blue whale though, the largest mammal in the world. Nothing is ever guaranteed, of course, but a bad day on the water beats a good day at work, right? We didn’t see any blue whales on my trip, but we did spot some humpbacks and whole schools of rays that jumped out of the water. Combined with the dramatic mountain scenery, it was definitely worthwhile.
You can also book a kayaking trip around the nearby islands and you might see whales and rays from your kayak seat. Or if you’re staying at a resort like Loreto Bay, you can just take one of their kayaks out and see what happens. There’s no beach in downtown Loreto, but once you get about a half mile out of town heading north, there’s a long stretch of sand that goes on and on for miles.
Get Close to Mama and Baby Whales Part 2: Magdalena Bay
You can see the full story I did on this Magdalena Bay whale adventure in Perceptive Travel. I went on a fantastic trip this spring with ROW Adventures’ Baja company Sea Kayak Adventures. Unlike at San Ignacio Bay to the north, here on Magdalena Bay you can camp on a barrier island beach and actually watch the whales from the shore. We did go out on a boat a couple times a day to see them up close, and we probably saw 50 or 60 whales over three days, including lots of mamas and their babies. There’s something quite special though about eating breakfast outside, a coffee in hand, and watching whales swim by.
As with the other location, there are areas here that are off-limits to boats and other designated locations where people and whales interact. Sometimes the babies come up to play, though on our trip they weren’t doing this as readily as they did when I visited the more northern bay of San Ignacio. It might happen, but consider it a bonus rather than a guarantee. If you want guarantees, head to Cabo during whale watching season to spot plenty of humpbacks.
Swim with Whale Sharks
One of the most famous fun things to do in Baja California Sur is to go snorkeling with the whale sharks near La Paz. Most locations where you can swim with whale sharks are tough to get to an are on the open seas. Sometimes you need to be a scuba diver to really see them up close. This area in Baja is within sight of the city, however, and the giant sharks (with no teeth) are swimming around with their mouths open just below the surface.
These aren’t the massive whale sharks that are the size of a luxury yacht, however. They’re juveniles that will hit the open seas after they grow up. They’re still quite big and impressive though, especially when you’re swimming right beside one, looking it in the eye!
Most tours include a sea lion sanctuary afterwards that’s really too crowded for snorkeling, but then lunch on a fantastic secluded bay with beaches. See some local tour options here:
Kayak Around a Protected Island
Espiritu Santo is a large island in the Sea of Cortez near La Paz and it’s a protected marine reserve. You can do an Espiritu Santo Island glamping trip with Todos Santos Eco Adventures and have a really comfortable trip with great food, or you can go more basic with one of the other approved operators that is allowed to have overnight stays in the nature reserve. They must follow strict rules in order to host guests here, so there are only a few of them to pick from.
If you don’t want to spend your nights camping, even full-service camping, then some companies arrange all-day trips out to Espiritu Santo Island with some kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding included plus lunch on the beach with a view. (For a closer trip to La Paz, you can do a multi-day kayaking trip around Isla del Carmen or Isla Danzante.)
Swim with Sea Lions Away From the Crowds
I mentioned before that most whale shark swimming tours also include a stop where you can, in theory, swim with sea lions, but it’s not a very good spot. The sea lions are kind of cranky about the constant visitors and revving boats.
A better option is to book at trip to the protected Espiritu Santo island mentioned earlier. As a part of that you can swim with sea lions in a secluded cove called La Lobera where there are usually no other people around and there’s not so much daily traffic. Here you’ve got a much better chance of interacting with the youngsters underwater and watching them play.
Hike From the Pacific to the Sea of Cortez
Are you up for crossing the spine of Baja from one sea to the other? It’ll take you a few days, but if you go with a good tour operator they’ll take care of all the logistics. They’ll bring the supplies, cook meals, set up the tents, and make sure you don’t get lost in the desert with no water. Along the way you’ll learn a lot about the Baja flora and fauna and get some fantastic views. See more details from one operator here.
Hike Where Gold Prospectors Used to Get Supplies
Just outside of Todos Santos are dramatic cliffs, hidden beaches, and a small bay that played a big part in the California Gold Rush. If you stay at Los Colibris, it’s easy to set up a half-day hiking trip with company that owns the hotel, Todos Santos Eco Adventures. You’ll leave from near the casitas and go hiking along beaches and cliffs with amazing views until you get to a beach with no road to it at the end. There you have a picnic lunch before walking out to the closest dirt road where a van is waiting to take you back.
One bay you see along the way is where ships coming to and from northern California during the gold rush days used to stop to resupply. There was a whole lot of desert and not much else along this coast back then, but Todos Santos is an oasis with fresh water springs where they could grow fruit, vegetables, and sugar cane and raise animals.
Ride a Camel on the Beach? What?!
Sometimes the answer to why some Baja adventure activity exists is just, “Because people will pay for it.” There are lots of places where you can go horseback riding in Los Cabos in the desert or on the beach. Apparently that wasn’t enough for Cactus Adventures so they imported some camels from all the way across two oceans.
If you forget where you are geographically for a moment, it all makes sense. You’re riding a camel through sand dunes and then you descend down the to ocean and pad along on the beach. It makes perfect sense and of course, great photo ops. Hey, there weren’t any horses on this peninsula either before the Spanish arrived, so that’s not “authentic” either if you want to get technical.
Ride an ATM Through the Cacti-studded Desert
If spreading your legs wide to ride on a camel isn’t your idea of fun, fire up the adrenaline with an ATV ride through the cacti instead. The desert landscape north of Cabo San Lucas makes for a near-perfect course for four-wheel ATV tours. It’s thrilling to bounce over hills and whip around turns on the dirt paths, occasionally emerging from the cordon cacti fields to get a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean.
Just be prepared to get coated in a layer of dust: you don’t want to go straight out to dinner after this ride.
Go Whale Watching Near the Los Cabos Arch
“This is the first day of whale watching season,” our guide told us as we puttered out to sea from the marina. There’s a good chance we won’t see anything today, so if that happens just enjoy the ride. All but one of us had our cameras sitting in our laps after he said this when not two minutes later, two huge humpback whales breached at the same time, side-by-side, and only one person in the boat got a photo of it. The rest of us just stared with our jaws dropped.
Usually during the prime season, the end of the Baja Peninsula is practically a whale highway. You can sit on your hotel balcony with a pair of binoculars and watch them all day. If you want to get up close though, take a whale watching tour that will get out on the water. As a part of that, you’ll cruise by the famous Los Cabos arch.
Take an Art Tour in San Jose del Cabo
OK, this isn’t really very adventurous, but at least it gets people away from the resort pool and gives them a chance to work off a few few tacos with a night of walking. Away from the glitz and glamor of the high-end hotels and housing developments around Los Cabos, there’s the original city where the missionaries first set up their base. Now downtown San Jose del Cabo is a thriving arts center, thanks in part to all the expat money in this region that creates a real market for what artists are creating.
The art walk happens every Thursday evening from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. between the months of November and June. You can drive and park or take a taxi or bus and just wander around on your own, or hook up with an organized tour and a guide if you’re a serious art lover. You’ll have a little wine along the way or you can make a visit to Baja Brewing Company downtown.
Go Snorkeling at Cabo Pulmo
Cabo Pulmo is a protected national park about two hours north of San Jose del Cabo and a shade less from the airport. It is generally acknowledged to be the best snorkeling spot in the Baja Peninsula that doesn’t require a boat trip out to an isolated island or reef to get to. It’s also noteworthy as the northernmost coral reef in the Pacific Ocean. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
You can visit the protected area on a snorkeling day trip from Los Cabos, or there are places to stay just outside the national park if one day of snorkeling and beach time isn’t enough.
Where to Stay in Baja Sur
In between your Baja adventures, you’ll need a place to stay. If you’ve got an RV or even a big tent, you’ll find plenty of places to crash for cheap. The hotel scene is hit and miss in Baja California Sur. You can get anything you want in the Cabo luxury resorts that can cost a couple grand a night, but it’s hard to find budget digs there. The selection gets thinner as you head north, but the prices ease up.
In some cases you’re better off renting an apartment. I had good luck with Airbnb last time I was there, getting nice apartments in both San Jose del Cabo and La Paz for less than $40 a night. (Get a hefty credit at this link if you’ve never stayed with them before.) There’s a lot of inventory on VRBO as well.
Top Adventure Tour Companies
As for tour companies, I’ve posted a few options along the way in this article, but ones I have personally traveled with before that have a great reputation and are doing good in the community include RED Travel Mexico, Baja Outdoor Activities (BOA), Sea Kayak Adventures, and Todos Santos Eco Adventures. They’re all members of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, as I am, and they’re following best practices to limit their environmental impact.
Surprisingly, the big tour companies like Intrepid and G Adventures are not very adventurous when it comes to Mexico and don’t operate any tours in this region. You will find lots of day trip and short tours available with Viator, however.
As far as getting there goes, a lot of Mexican airlines fly to the Baja Peninsula, so it’s cheap to get here from the USA or from somewhere else in Mexico. It’s surprisingly affordable to get to Los Cabos from even across the country in Merida or from central cities like Queretaro or Leon/Guanajuato. Southwest flies there too: take that one if you’re coming from the USA and don’t want to get dinged for luggage charges.
How about you? What fun Baja adventures did you find on your trip?
Tuesday 11th of June 2019
Just apply the usual rules of common sense safety and anytime you can avoid it, don’t be driving across the desert in the middle of the night in your flashy vehicle. Definitely. In fact it's a very good idea to avoid driving at night in any vehicle, flashy or not. Black and brown cows, invisible until the last moment of a close encounter, wander the roads--at highway speeds it could be your last encounter.
Wednesday 12th of June 2019
Yeah, the head of tourism for Baja Sur ran into a cow when I was on a press trip there once! He had some serious damage and had to pay the farmer for the cow on top of that.